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Following Instructions–A Lesson

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.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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