How Honing Your Language Skills Can Make a Brilliant First Impression with Clients and Colleagues Alike
According to an article in BBC News Magazine, the dating site OKCupid examined 500,000 initial contacts between prospective daters and found that respondents considered bad grammar, colloquial “netspeak” spellings like “ur,” and even misused apostrophes “huge turn-offs.”
Seriously? Are people that shallow?
Well, yes. “People make judgements about each other all the time,” writes Tom de Castella in the BBC News piece.
That’s especially true when people first meet. Initially, we know almost nothing about each other, so we collect our first impressions from surface characteristics like dress and articulateness. And if the first impression is based on a written communication (such as an email), the elegance of the writing will make the strongest initial impression, for good or ill.
Of course, you can’t spend your life worrying about the judgements of pedants and intellectual snobs. But mastering the basics of style and usage will satisfy most folks who read that initial email, giving you a chance to get past the first impression.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “I do good work. Why should potential clients care about a few misspellings and misplaced apostrophes?” Here’s why they care: They don’t know you yet. They’re still deciding whether you will handle their case competently. Perhaps it’s a sensitive matter, and they’re wary of confiding in someone unknown to them.
In that initial email, they’re assessing you, to determine whether you’re the person to escort them through this difficult situation. A well-written email can communicate several things to your client, without your having to say them outright:
You are someone who pays attention to detail.
If the client notices care and attention to detail in your first email messages to her (or the writing on your company website), she may conclude that you pay attention to detail in your work, as well. Clients may also conclude the opposite: carelessness in language could indicate carelessness in work, and nobody is impressed by that.
A little extra effort in drafting your initial communication, or your web copy, goes a long way.
You are a reader.
Attention to style in your written communications reveals something else about your personality: that you’re someone who has long studied the written word.
Habitual readers tend to know things, and I don’t mean just facts. Sure, consuming news media and nonfiction fills our brains with information about the world. But reading great essays and literature also enhances our logical skills and our understanding of human nature.
Reading makes us better thinkers. And some clients may be gratified to learn that you, as a reader, are always working to improve your critical thinking skills — skills that are crucial to the work of an investigator.
You are a logical, intelligent person.
It may not be a fair assessment, but some people judge our intelligence, at least initially, based on our language abilities. Articulate people with a broad vocabulary at their command are often considered to be intelligent (although pedants are just annoying).
And as unfair as it may be, people who use incorrect grammar or misuse words are sometimes judged (or misjudged) as uneducated or unintelligent. Even worse, some people view strong regional accents as marks of low intelligence. (I’m a Southerner and have experienced this judgement many times.)
I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t have regional accents. Personally, I love hearing them. They’re part of our personalities. (You should hear how my husband’s accent changes when he visits his hometown in West Tennessee.)
In fact, it can even be useful at times to use your regional vernacular and pronunciation to your advantage. When my husband Hal interviews witnesses in rural parts of the South, I can promise you that he resurrects his Southern accent, whether he means to or not. And it works; people who initially look askance at his suit and tie actually seem to relax a bit once they hear his warm West Tennessee “How you doin’?”
Mirroring how people speak (up to a point) can go a long way toward establishing rapport. You don’t need to go as far as actually making errors on purpose (because that might seem condescending). But varying the formality of your speech based on who your audience is can melt away initial mistrust. When someone hears you speaking much like they do, they may conclude, “This person is a lot like me.” And that puts them immediately at ease.
The key is knowing how to use language well in all its variety, from informal and colloquial usage to more formal and literary styles. With that ability, you can communicate comfortably with almost anyone.
When it comes to written communications, from your initial emails to your final investigative reports, clear and logical prose will always win. Good writing indicates clarity of thought and strong logical skills. Not only will that impress your clients, but improving your writing can improve your thinking, and that will make you a better investigator.
All this adds up to one thing: Using language carefully can help you win the trust of clients and colleagues — and also their business.