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Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine Anyone?

I received a letter from my health plan yesterday. It began this way:

We would like to ask you for your help with a vaccine research study. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the immune response to an investigational 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in adults XX to XX years of age. [The Xs represent an age range.]

Participation in the study will involve one injection and three blood draws. . . .

What do you think of the letter so far? Are you wondering how you too can sign up for the 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine?

The opening of this letter illustrates what is wrong with a lot of business writing. It does not focus on readers, their questions, or their vocabulary.

The first sentence of the letter is fine. It asks for help. Because I like my health plan, I am happy to help. However, my willingness to help fades when I have no idea what the study is about or why I should care. Here are just a few of my questions:

  • Why is this study important?
  • Why would I want to help with this study?
  • What does 13-valent mean?
  • Does a conjugate vaccine have anything to do with conjugating verbs? (This is a bad joke but a sincere one.)

The rest of the letter described the number of clinic visits involved (three), the fees involved (compensation to volunteers for each clinic visit), and the next step the reader should take if interested (calling a phone number). An attachment reviewed questions and answers.

The principal investigator of the study signed the letter. I bet she is passionate about her work. No doubt she understands why the study is important and how useful the results will be. I wish she had communicated some of that passion and understanding at the beginning of the letter.

I am not a medical professional, but I can imagine the letter opening like this:

We would like to ask for your help with an important vaccine research study. The study will help us learn about the immune response of people your age (XX to XX) to a new vaccine. The vaccine is designed to prevent infection with a bacterium (germ) that can cause serious bloodstream infection and pneumonia. When the study is complete, we will know. . . . [The sentence should briefly state what the study will show. It should make the phrase "immune response" meaningful for nonmedical readers.] Please review the information below, and call if you are able to help us by participating in the study.

It is not easy for medical professionals, engineers, and other technical experts to communicate well with people outside their fields. But their businesses depend on their ability to communicate, and we depend on their businesses.

I hope the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine will be approved and ready if and when I need it. But it will take a different letter from my health plan to get me to enroll in the study.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

2 comments on “Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine Anyone?”

  • Lynn,
    Thanks so much for using the before-and-after format to show how you would have approached this.

    I think that your example shows that you *can* communicate technical information to a reader of average intelligence, but as you pointed out, you have to begin by turning your attention to *them*.

  • Yes, but we all know that the letter was probably originally written Lynn’s way and then rewritten by management. The style reeks of management/lawyer speak.

    Too often good communication is sabotaged by someone in the chain of command.


    TITLE: Think of your audience first: a before-and-after example
    BLOG NAME: Writing, Clear and Simple
    DATE: 06/27/2007 11:59:56 AM
    Lynn Gaertner-Johnston (of the Business Writing blog) was recently asked to participate in a medical research study. Thats about the only thing that …

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