emoji

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Chances are you’ve encountered a smiley face on a digital message recently. In business communication, what’s old is new again. We’ve come full circle from the early messages contained in cave paintings and hieroglyphics to present-day emails sprinkled with emoticons and emojis.

Why the return to pictographs? Those of us who communicate digitally do our best to type out our thoughts in a coherent and professional manner. But, often, this isn’t enough to convey our true meaning. Text alone creates space between ourselves and our audience.

What’s more, communication breakdown plays havoc with teamwork, individual productivity, and client relations. Adding emotional context—as pictures do—helps bridge the gap. Enter: the emoji.

Limits of the Printed Word

Stylized images first peeked out of digital texts about twenty years ago, but have recently been embraced as desirable elements of company culture. More than decoration, emojis facilitate clear communication. And better understanding brings staff members together.

We tend to speak in shorthand, relying on the other person to correctly understand what we really mean. This may work face to face, where questions can be asked and clarity achieved. But, language in any written form is often interpreted negatively if a positive or explanatory context is not provided.

Without visual or aural hints, words must be taken a face value. Extra verbiage may be needed to transmit urgency, irony, sarcasm, or trepidation on the part of the communicator. Not everyone has the time or the skill to pull this off and present their full intent via the keyboard. At work, this may mean that people must act on partial facts, misinformation, or faulty points of view.

Value of the Emoji

Suppose you send this instant message to your team:

Please take the attached survey and return it to me at your earliest convenience.

People may wonder:

  • Whether they have time to take the survey
  • Whether you, personally, have an interest in the response or will forward it to others
  • Whether “earliest convenience” means “right now” or “when you feel like it”

Now suppose you add three emojis to the note:

Please take the attached survey and return it to me  at your earliest convenience.

These pictorial clues speak more directly than sentences. You’ve shown that the survey will take about ten minutes, you (the surfing enthusiast) need the information, and it should take priority. In fact, we often “translate” words into images because they are more memorable.

Our brains love pictures! This is why advertisers bolster short tag lines with eye-popping graphics. You can read about how great a burger is, but a picture of a juicy sandwich will compel you to order one.

Add Emoji-Speak to Your Company Culture

While companies generally don’t tell people what to write, they can introduce a common contextual shorthand using emojis. To lend instant meaning to print messages, customize a menu of succinct (and cute!) images. Let the whole team know what each one means and when to use it.

My company, for instance, harnesses emoji power to acknowledge great performance by our remote staff. We post a “green flag” alongside shout-outs for goals met and outstanding effort. Anyone in the chat room understands that the recipient is to be congratulated—and emulated. Green flag recipients understand that their effort is appreciated and instrumental to the company’s success.

Emojis can be overused or ill timed and become unprofessional annoyances. Avoid this downside by setting standards for when emojis are acceptable and encouraged. Walk those who are less digitally savvy through the process, so that everyone is on the same page.

It’s difficult to process large volumes of written content and to interpret the senders’ motives and true meanings. The more accurate the information received, the more on-target employees’ decisions will be. Like the rich context imparted in cave paintings, emojis and imagery add significance to the written word with a mouse click.

This article originally appeared in The London Business Journal.