Writing skills rely on thinking skills

How to save time: 3 questions to ask yourself before writing to a client

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

During my writing skills courses and training, I often talk about the importance of being concise. Very often this benefits the reader as the writer has had to think carefully about what to include and what to leave out.

However, as Mark Twain suggested, distilling the essence of what you want to say and discerning what is extraneous requires more effort. So surely this is going to take longer?! I hear you say.

But here lies the issue: What you and your client deem extraneous may be quite different.* You may leave something out in the interests of being concise, only to find your client ignores your letter or emails you back to question something that wasn’t clear to them.

How do I decide what to leave out?

Remember: Effective communication isn’t about what you say or write, it’s about what people do afterwards.

As a rule of thumb, to pare my writing down, I will often ask: is what I’m writing of benefit to my client or reader? Is it going to move them closer to their goal or the action I want them to take e.g. call their solicitor to make a will (which will ultimately move them closer to their goal). Or am I writing this to show off my knowledge, reassure them that I know what I’m talking about or simply because I find it interesting?!

Review your recent client letters and emails. Are you being crystal clear in spelling out what your client needs to do next and why?  If so, you’ll save time: yours, your support staff and your clients because there won’t be so much backwards and forwards. Up goes your efficiency and everyone is happy.

An example of concise writing in need of improvement

See the paragraph below which came from a mortgage and protection suitability example report.  Yes, it is concise but how could you rewrite it so that it’s clear and gets the action you need? For extra points, how could you also use this opportunity to earn the client’s trust?

If the recommended alternative plan is established on any basis different to that of your existing cover the illustrated premiums will not act as a wholly fair comparison. I do stress that you should not cancel your existing protection until we have received underwriting terms on the proposed new plan and it has been placed on risk.

What’s good about this?

  • It uses “you” so it strikes a personable tone
  • It mentions the importance of a like-for-like basis on which the costs are being calculated
  • It warns the client not to cancel the current protection

What’s not so good about this?

  • The actions and consequences are not crystal clear
  • It uses terms which may not be familiar to the client eg “on risk”, premium
  • It doesn’t begin with what’s important to the client ie a fair comparison
  • An opportunity to build trust has been missed. This is why I have included some ‘handholding’ in my reworked version below – eg I will let you know when you can call Legal and General to cancel your current protection

An example of clear writing that will lead to action

Here’s how I edited it:

In order to show a fair comparison, it’s important that the costs are calculated on a like-for-like basis.  If you agree that these are comparative, please let me know and we can move ahead.

However, please don’t cancel your existing protection with Legal and General until we have agreed and confirmed the arrangement with the new insurance company, otherwise you will not be covered. I will let you know when you can contact them.

If the costs are not being compared on a like for like basis, please tell me as soon as possible and we can recalculate. This will avoid you being in a position where, should you need to claim, you won’t be fully recompensed.

Yes, it’s longer but I would argue that its clear, compelling and the actions are easy to take.

3 questions to ask yourself before writing to a client asking them to do something

In summary, next time you sit down to write to your client, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself:

  • What do they CARE about? Put that at the start of the sentence (and letter or report)  as it will engage them.
  • What do they need to DO – something or nothing? If there is any risk of misunderstanding, spell it out either way.
  • Include WHY they need to do it or not do it. This makes your request more compelling.

So, when writing to clients – is concise always better? Not at the expense of their misunderstanding and inaction. Because this will lead to chasing, clarifying and other time-consuming communications. If you are clear about the what and why, you will save time in the long run.

*Clearly a compliance officer needs to be happy with what you leave out but it may be that you include it elsewhere. A Professional Indemnity lawyer will also have a view although they would always want your points to be as clear and easy for the client to understand.

If you are interested in saving time and improving your writing, then have a look at my communication skills training courses.

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