Avoiding Ambiguity


It’s easy to assume that what’s obvious or seems reasonable to us must be exactly the same to someone else. Of course, that isn’t true. We process every message and interaction through the lens of our unique circumstances and experiences to develop our own interpretation of what something means.

Ambiguity leaves the door open to your message being interpreted in a different way to how you'd intended. In turn, this can cause inefficiency, lost time, frustration, stress, weaker relationships, and other preventable issues.

This is particularly true for email and other messaging, for two reasons. First, our emotional response forms long before we've finished reading the first sentence. That colours our interpretation of the message. Second, we scan rather than read.

How many times have you received an email asking you to do something which wasn’t clear? You spend time puzzling over exactly what the sender's looking for. Then you have to go back and forward to clarify what the other person wants. At the same time, everyone's frustrated because the project has ground to a halt.

Before you hit send on your next email give your message a clarity check. Are you clear? If you’re seeking information from a client are you specific about what you're requesting? If you’re delegating a project to someone on your team are you clear about what you need? If you're asking someone to do something for you, does your message pass the Nike test?

Is your message explicit? Or is it implicit, ambiguous, and open to interpretation?

If "oh, I thought you meant..." is frequently heard in your office it's time for a clarity check.

By the way, unambiguous doesn't mean rude. You can be unambiguous, concise and explicit at the same time as being courteous and polite. They're not exclusive.


Steve Jobs was a master of unambiguous emails that were the epitome of brevity. You can see some of the best examples here.

The Five Sentences email strategy can help develop a concise, clear style.

For anyone who writes in any business context (and that's more or less all of us), Scott Adams' "The Day You Became a Better Writer" is two minutes of essential reading.


Chris Beaumont