From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
Striving For Clarity
When laying down the lines of communication for your community, our goal is to strive for clarity. Imagine if you will a world in which every communication is clear, accessible, and well understood by your community. You need to think carefully about the culture in which your community communicates and strive to build a highway and driving style that achieves that culture. You first need to lay the foundations, which can be found in clarity and transparency. Your members want to be able to hear, read, or experience each communication and understand it straightaway. When clarity is in place, contributions will begin to flow shortly afterward. When confusion, misunderstanding, and opacity set in, your members will either spend their days seeking clarification or move on, confused and frustrated.
Achieving clarity requires attention to two areas. First, a sensible choice of communication medium is required (mailing list, IRC, forum, etc.). This is relatively straightforward and actually fairly uninteresting. We will make some decisions about this over the following pages. The second, more complex part is picking communication channels that match the needs of the users while maximizing clarity. Let’s spend some time talking about that.
Teaching great communication is complex, and many books have been written on the subject. Fortunately, becoming a great communicator doesn’t require an exercise in academically satisfying hand waving or an attempt to sound like a monocle-wearing intellectual, but to simply be clear, friendly, and straightforward in your communications.
- Be clear
- Always try to communicate as clearly and transparently as possible. Speak frankly and use language familiar to your recipient. Try not to blind people with science, but don’t patronize them either. Always try to craft your communications to your audience.
- Be concise
- Keep to the point, and don’t weigh your communications down with babble. Don’t use 1,000 words to say what could be said in 100. With many of us receiving so many emails, messages, phone calls, and other distractions every day, don’t burden your community with unnecessary rambling. If an email takes longer than five minutes to type, you may be doing something wrong (or you are a really, really slow typist).
- Be responsive
- You don’t have to be wedded to your computer, but try to get back to people within a few days of them getting in touch with you. If you are drowning in emails and work, just let people know you might be a little delayed, so their expectations are set correctly. This issue is applicable not just to personal communication direct to you and other community leaders, but also to mailing lists, forums, IRC, and other public channels. Put yourself in the sender’s position: it is impossible to tell the difference between “nobody is answering my question because nobody knows the answer, meaning that what I’m trying to do is impossible and I should try something else” and “nobody is answering my question even though everyone knows the answer because they’re all too busy, meaning that I should sit and wait longer rather than abandoning this approach.” It helps to make your community seem more friendly to new members and outsiders if they can tell the difference between these two things.
- Be fun
- One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they become well respected in a community is to hide their personality in the interests of “looking professional.” Let your personality shine through. Make jokes and witty comments, and be sarcastic. Communities are supposed to be fun, and this is an important part of leading by example.
- Be human
- We are all human, and we all make mistakes. If you screw up, say so and apologize. People will cherish your honesty and your integrity to hold your hands up when you get it wrong. This is a critically important part of leading by example: you want your community to also accept when they get it wrong. What we want to avoid is defensiveness, because it causes people to enter into a game of rebounding defensive statements, which is frustrating and damaging. If your hands are tied in being frank and open about your mistakes (such as if your employer would be less than thrilled), identify what went wrong and try to secure confidence in your community that it won’t happen again in the future.