Elon Musk’s recently revealed email might describe good communication, but the email itself doesn’t accomplish it. Here’s why:
Elon’s language emphasizes the power imbalance between him and employees at Tesla. There are many ‘you’s and ‘your’s, with no ‘I’s and very few ‘we’s. Messages which hide the writer’s point of view, tend to come across as ‘talking down’ to the recipient. They also come across as angrier. This language undermines the point of his message. To overcome an ‘us vs them mentality’, use more inclusive language, ‘we’s instead of ‘you’s.
Elon masks his views behind passive constructs. His message is a masterclass in passive voice communication. Take “This … needs to be actively fought”, for example: it’s a beautifully self-defeating use of passive voice. The problem of the passive is that it hides who has to fight it. Managers? Employees? Nobody is assigned responsibility for fighting it. Imagine if he’d said “I expect all managers to fight this.”
Elon over-uses adverbs to strengthen his passivity. Because his natural written voice tends to the passive, Elon compensates by using adverbs to intensify it. A standout is “This is incredibly dumb” — forceful, but as close to shouting as you get can without all capitals. His last paragraph uses three adverbs alone — yes, they convey a strength of feeling, but he’d have done better if he’d written more in the first person, and made his voice and his opinions more explicit.
Overall, Elon’s goal is a good one: removing the hierarchy and power dimensions from internal communication. Unfortunately, his written language still comes from that hierarchical mindset, and therefore, his point loses some of its force.
Tools, like the ones we’re building at Turalt, will help people like Elon Musk become better emailers, using a little of the AI we know Elon loves deep down inside.
Dr. Stuart Watt has a PhD in the psychology of social intelligence and has developed technologies that use psychological insights into organizational processes to improve email practice.
He is CTO of Turalt, a Toronto-based AI company using feedback and analytic tools based on AI, psycholinguistics, and psychometrics to solve online miscommunication in business.