Perception, reality and the space in between…

[Image courtesy of at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently met somebody in person whom I’d already dealt with by email. I’d also had a look at his website, and formed an impression based on what he said and how he presented himself. He wasn’t a potential client, and the meeting wasn’t in a business setting. But even though I was off duty, I still couldn’t help weighing up his words.

I was expecting somebody serious and slightly humourless, and just a little intimidating. The sort of person who’s polite and well-mannered, but with whom you never really feel at ease.

How wrong I was. The first hint was when I phoned him to check directions as I made my way to our rendezvous. There was warmth and friendliness in the voice, and a touch of humour. How odd, I thought.

And it was even odder when we finally met and shook hands. The big, beaming smile and easy manner took me by surprise. There was instant rapport, and we never ran out of things to talk about.

So how did that happen?

The answer wasn’t difficult to find. In fact, I felt so comfortable and relaxed with my new friend that I told him the picture I had of him before our meeting. He looked a little crestfallen, but went on to explain the discrepancy.

“I’m basically quite a shy person,” he said, “and have always been a bit of an outsider. So I suppose I compensate by coming across as serious and self-assured. Perhaps I’ve overdone it. I’m OK in person – the problem is mostly in writing.”

And he’s right – he is OK in person. More than OK in fact. He’s positively exceptional: charming, witty and excellent company. Just as well, really, as he’s a portrait photographer. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s a photographer that he’s developed these skills.

Either way, his writing lets him down, so I offered to tweak his web copy and give him some pointers on relaxing and letting go in email. And he’s taken it all on board, if our recent communication is anything to go by. He’s leaned into the exercise, and has really loosened up. 

Up close and personal

There’s nothing unusual about this experience. Everybody finds it difficult to write about themselves. They’re just too close to the action, and it’s too personal to feel comfortable. So they stiffen up and distance themselves – from themselves, ironically.

But it’s more than that.

It’s an inability to accurately represent in writing what an actual encounter will be like. And I’m not simply talking here about individuals. Companies are just as prone to the same error – more so, in fact. There’s often a yawning gulf between what they say and how they act. Between what they say and who they are.

So next time you’re surprised, as I was, by the gap between perception and reality, try turning the tables and ask yourself how others see you, based on your written materials. Your emails, tweets, blog posts, direct mails, website copy and brochures.

Are they saying you’re serious, humourless and intimidating, or warm, friendly and open? And does that tally with the actual experience?

Companies have personalities, just like photographers and copywriters, and everybody in between. So what’s yours? And does your writing accurately reflect that?

If not, you really should fix it.