by Prof Benita Olivier

I am sitting next to the hockey field while my 7-year-old is playing his first mini-hockey game. In short, I can very accurately describe that what I am observing here is absolute chaos. But, it is organised chaos. These boys are super-excited and all of them want a hit at the ball – all at the same time. Then, on my left, an equally excited dad was shouting repeatedly: “Get in the game! Get in the game!”

At first, I thought “Indeed! Valuable advice” but then I realised that these boys do not have a clue what to make of this advice. What does “get in the game” actually mean? What does it mean to the dad? What does it mean to the boys? For me, it means to go and tackle the ball. For the dad, it may mean to do what you were taught to do. And for the boys? Mmmm….. I’m not sure they even registered…

This scenario made me realise the importance of effective communication in our everyday lives, including the workplace. As academics, we deal with a lot of emails daily – from sending manuscripts to co-authors to providing feedback on assignments to students, and many more. Each of us has our own meaning that we connect to a specific bit (or rather bite) of communication. Communicating more effectively will increase your work satisfaction and those of others. Imagine you can avoid those misunderstandings and delays altogether or at least minimise them. Also, in the shoes of the receiver, imagine all the emails you receive are carefully formulated, clear and concise. Now, this is a world that I’d love to be part of!


As most of our communication is through email, here are a few tips that I’ve learnt in the last 11 years in the academy:

  1. Put a few words, which accurately describe the content/intent of the email, in the subject box, then go on, write your email and stick to your subject. This makes it easier to find emails afterwards when one needs to refer back for some reason.
  2. Add a greeting to the email such as “Dear Sarah” or “Good morning Prof Mokoena”. A more casual “Hi Vanesh” is also acceptable when the situation lends itself to that.
  3. Be a “normal” (what is normal anyway?) human being – a casual tone is sometimes beneficial. Adding in a bit of small talk (or even a lame joke) such as “Now that winter is here, and before we all start to hibernate, I think it is time that we get that paper submitted” or refer back to your last engagement “I hope you are doing well and that last week’s presentation to deanery ran smoothly”. Read the situation sensitively and act accordingly – you will know when a slightly less formal approach is appropriate.
  4. Put the core purpose of the email in the sentence below the greeting/introductory sentence e.g. “I’d like to get permission to use the cricket pitch for research purposes on the 7th of August 2019”, then follow with your motivation and other detail.
  5. When formulating your email, be explicit and chuck the hidden expectations out the window. If you have a deadline in mind, don’t assume the receiver of your email will have the same deadline in mind e.g. if you need feedback on a paper which need to reach the publishers before a certain date, and you would like to have two days to make the final changes before final submission, share your expectations and negotiate from there, if needed. Also, clearly state what you want the other person to do with this paper – scan through, double-check the tables or review the entire paper. This approach will avoid a mismatch between actual and perceived expectations.
  6. In this same line, don’t make assumptions (you know what they say about assumptions) about what you think someone else means when you read their email. If there is ambiguity, ask.
  7. Emails do not have a tone of voice or a body language – precede your email with a quick call if it involves sensitive information which lends itself to being misinterpreted.
  8. To follow up on a case, use the same email thread in which the initial communication took place – everyone has a lot going on and the initial communication serves as a refresher of what has been said or decided. This approach makes responding to an email easy, which means there is a reduction in the turnaround time.

Keep the above in mind when you reflect on your own communication skills. Let us foster a culture of clear communication.

Go and get into the game!


Benita Olivier7b.jpgProf Benita Olivier is an Associate professor and researcher in the field of musculoskeletal physiotherapy

Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Witwatersrand

Twitter handle @BenitaOlivier and @ResearchMaster4

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