Why people misread your messages

Thoughtful person sitting at desk and looking at computer screen Have you ever written what you thought was a perfectly clear email, only to get a reply ten minutes later that left you scratching your head?

Perhaps the person you sent it to emailed back with questions that you thought you’d already answered. Or maybe they got hold of the wrong end of the stick completely.

It’s not just you. Sometimes, it can feel like people haven’t read what we’ve written at all.

And there’s a good reason for that: they haven’t.


People don’t read…

I’ll explain why in a second. But first, try to complete the following sentence:

I have a problem with my mouse, because …

You’d be wrong if you guessed something like ‘the batteries have run out’, ‘it’s not connecting to my laptop’ or ‘the Bluetooth dongle thingy isn’t working’.

In fact the correct answer is:

… it hasn’t eaten for days.

Well done though if you did correctly guess that I was talking about my (imaginary) pet mouse, Nigel. Millions wouldn’t.


People guess

That’s because, in the developed world, ‘mouse’ most often refers to a computer device and not to a small, furry rodent.

A furry mouse sits on a computer mouse.

Wrong mouse: Nigel knows nothing about tech.

You may not have realised, but you were using probability to predict what was coming next. In this case, your prediction was probably wrong.

Psychologists call this the ‘garden path’ effect (from the idiom ‘to be led up the garden path’).

Prediction is an important hack that the brain uses to speed up our reading. But it’s also often why we miss key facts.

Just like predictive text on our phones, our brain guesses what’s coming up next based on what it’s seen before. But also like predictive text, it’s not always that reliable.

So we often misread what’s right in front of our eyes.


All an illusion

I explained last week that much of what we think of as ‘reading’ is actually just an illusion.

As we scan each sentence, our eyes can focus on only a few letters at a time. So our brain predicts the rest. It then checks if it was right.

But when it’s under pressure or feels sure it knows the answer, it often forgets the checking part. So we read what we expect to read – even when that expectation is wrong.

And that’s almost certainly the reason you got that puzzling reply.

Perhaps the other person was reading your email on their phone while multitasking. Maybe they were stressed or overloaded.

Their head was full of their own thoughts, which skewed what they ‘saw’ as they read.

So they missed those key points that you were so careful to include.

You were writing about rodents. They were thinking about tech.


Control how people read

We can’t change people’s brains, but we can change how they read. Here’s how.

Avoid starting sentences with lots of explanatory details, which may overload their brain and tempt them to guess what you mean.

So don’t begin with the ‘why’:

After giving careful consideration to A over the last 24 hours and the fact that we had a problem with B …

Instead, get straight to the point:

Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to do C.


Prepare their brain

Sometimes, though, that can be a bit blunt (especially when delivering bad news). So you might feel you need to prepare the reader’s brain for what’s coming up.

In such cases, do put the explanatory details first, but break them down into separate sentences:

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to A over the last 24 hours. B is going to be a big problem. So unfortunately we’re not going to be able to do C.

That will make it much easier for the reader to predict accurately, so they see what you actually wrote.


Write for readability

You might also want to download and save this free guide to improving readability, written by my colleague Kathy Gemmell.

Image credit: Tim Gouw / Unsplash

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