A reader wrote to me today with a problem. As part of the hiring process for a job, he (the job candidate, whom I’ll call Jon) was asked to write a letter to a key client group introducing himself and describing his ideas for their product. Although Jon did very well in all other parts of the hiring process, he was told that his letter was too brief. Apparently, his brief letter cost Jon the job.
We don’t often hear "too brief" as the reason a piece of writing fails, so I was surprised to read that his letter was criticized for brevity. But as I read more of Jon’s email, the problem became clear. In his letter to the clients, he had indeed introduced himself. But he had only touched on his ideas for their product, saying he would share more with them in a meeting. Jon told me he did not want to overload the clients with information in the letter.
Not overloading the reader is a good thing. So what was the problem? Jon did not follow instructions. The instructions said he should introduce and describe. But he decided to introduce, touch on, and schedule a meeting.
People who hire employees and consultants use writing assignments as a gauge of a person’s ability to write–and to follow instructions.
When an application says to include personal and professional references, omitting them guarantees a place at the bottom of the application pile. If an RFP (request for proposals) asks for specific information, writing "See web site" is a vague response that frustrates readers. Similarly, if editorial guidelines stipulate a maximum of 500 words, writing 720 creates work for the editor, work he or she is probably not willing to do.
Lesson: Follow instructions. Although doing so does not guarantee we will get hired or see our articles published, it does guarantee that we can say "I did my best. Now it’s up to them."
If you have a lesson about following instructions, please share it.