The Language of Engagement

Posted on June 25th 2014

The Language of Engagement

language of engagementHaving a well crafted community strategy and roadmap is critical to enabling effective outcomes, but translating that strategy into your engagement approach is equally critical and often overlooked. People tend to communicate in online communities they way they do elsewhere and that can often be the wrong approach.

What’s the problem?

In most business communications the emphasis is on being declarative and crafting a well thought-out and complete thought. Whether that is an email, a presentation or a press release, we try not to leave things unsaid or vague. But the enemy of engagement is perfection. The more complete your thought, the less other opinions and input is needed. Complete and perfect communications are a transaction, not a conversation. However, this is what is expected in traditional business communication and it creates a major barrier to collaboration.

When you communicate in a community, everything you thought you knew about communication is often wrong. The people who tend to get the most engagement use a writing style that is modest, imperfect, inquisitive, solicitous and often vulnerable. This approach tends to make people with a business or management background squeamish. The other challenge community managers have is that these attributes can, when used the wrong way, lead to a passive tone. This is also not good because the organization’s perspective and voice is lost and the community could move in a direction that is no longer productive to the business.

If this sounds a bit like a catch-22, it’s because it is. One of the skills of a great community manager is riding the fine line between being solicitous in general interactions and firm when it comes to the community boundary conditions.

Here are some of our recommendations on how to shape your language of engagement:

  • Be careful about using absolutes – always, never, no, yes.
  • When expressing an opinion (which I think is important because differences are where innovation and change come from), use phrases like ‘In my experience’, ‘I have found’, ‘I think’ and ‘From my perspective’, which allow an opening for others and encourages others to share their experience and perspectives.
  • Use ‘but’ and ‘should’ sparingly. ‘But’ arrests a conversation and takes it in a different direction, implicitly judging another comment as incomplete or misdirected. ‘Should’ is often used when telling someone else what you think they ought to do, which is a dynamic of control vs. engagement.
  • Use ‘you’ and ‘we’ carefully for similar reasons – they can subtly indicate control over ideas and people.
  • Be curious and ask a lot of questions, even if you think someone’s question has been answered. There is often more to the story that leads to better understanding and sometimes, a different answer.
  • Consider using emoticons – not necessarily all over and not 10 in a row – because online it is hard to decipher when a comment is meant in a friendly or a confrontational way, and emoticons help establish tone. The same goes for exclamation points.
  • Be aware of digital body language - both your own and others. Pam Moore has a great list of ways you can indicate or decipher intent.
  • Be careful about validating or spreading either a good or bad rumor before it can be confirmed. This can get you into trouble very quickly and it is a human instinct to want to solve problems and spread good news, so it’s particularly important to be aware that as a community manager you are an authority figure that adds fuel to a fire. Use that power carefully.

What would you add to this list? What do you avoid? What do you actively try to do more of?

Do you disagree with anything on this list? Please share in the comments.


Rachel Happe

Founder, TheCR

See Full Profile >