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What Dentists Can Learn from Doctors

Today I spent 2.5 hours in the chair at my dentist’s office, nearly all of it with my poor mouth wide open. After those stressful hours, my dentist (whom I believe to be very experienced, well trained, and compassionate) told me in a few sentences what had happened and what would be happening to me and my mouth over the next few weeks.

But here’s the problem: Although he told me, I can remember almost none of it–at least not accurately. I do remember that I am to floss the tooth in question in just one direction. I do remember hearing the threat of a root canal–but just a threat. (Whew!) And I remember hearing something about cavities near a nerve (or was it a nerve near a gum?).

I know one other thing for sure: My next appointment is on December 27 at noon. I know that because it is written on a little card.

By contrast, I visited the urgent care department of my health plan, Group Health, on November 19. My urgent problem was a paper cut–on my eye. I had pulled a sheet of paper out of my printer without noticing how close my face was to the threatening object.

The care was similar–time consuming and a bit stressful. However, when I left Group Health, I had several sheets of paper in hand. They told me how to treat my "corneal scratch" after my visit. The information fell under these headings:

  • Your Care Instructions
  • What should you do at home?
  • When should you call for help?
  • Where can you learn more?
  • How to Use Eye Ointments and Gels Properly

The papers even told me my blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and a few other details.

My dentist could learn a lot about patient communication from my doctors. However, we could all learn a lot from them. Consider:

Do you expect the people you work with (customers, clients, employees, patients, citizens, residents) to remember what you tell them–even in stressful circumstances? Or do you give them a clearly written takeaway that summarizes what they need to know?

When my mother died in October, the funeral director gave my father a beautifully worded pamphlet about the emotions he might experience over the next few days and weeks. It was something he could refer to after the whirlwind of visitors, funeral services, and pressing practical details. Had the funeral director just spoken some advice, it would have been lost in that moment.

I challenge you to think of a helpful takeaway you can write for one or more of your audiences. Do your associates, clients, or patients need a list of helpful web sites? Quick instructions on how to repair, order, or troubleshoot something? A list of questions to assess a situation? Twenty practical phrases to use in a foreign country? Three principles to guide them through the next encounter?

Whatever your takeaway might be, write it, print it, and give it away–to one person or many. Then please write to tell me you have done it. I would love to read about your accomplishment.



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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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