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Managing Resistant Readers

In a Better Business Writing class I taught this week in Seattle, Dave raised an important question when we were talking about writing for your readers. He asked, “What if some of your readers will be perfectly happy with your message but others will be angry or resistant?”

Dave wondered how hard we should work to be persuasive if only a few people need that extra work from us.

Here is Dave’s example: He imagined writing a piece in which he was announcing a new dress code for all employees. Under the new code, employees would no longer be able to wear jeans or miniskirts. Those who never wear jeans or miniskirts would not care; in fact, they might be pleased. But the few others might be angry, insulted, and frustrated.

What would you do in Dave’s situation? Would you work hard to create an announcement that would persuade even resistant readers?

Sometimes we ask a piece of writing to work too hard. In Dave’s hypothetical situation, if the dress code announcement is bringing the first news of the change, that announcement is doomed to offend and inflame some readers.

What should Dave do instead?

It depends where the company is in its decision-making process. If it is early in the process, Dave can invite employee input on a possible new dress code. Or he can create a committee to review the current dress code and recommend changes. Or he can survey all employees. Once he has involved employees in creating the new dress code, it will be easier to announce it.

But if he has not taken the steps above and still needs to announce a new policy, he should not expect an email or a memo to do the job on its own. He should hold a meeting to present the policy and the reasons for it and to answer questions about it. Then he should send out a well-written email or memo introducing the policy.

What about you? Do you have situations in which some employees, customers, or vendors will be happy about your message but others will be angry or resistant?

Do your best to avoid having a written message be the only communication. Depending on the circumstances, add group meetings, individual meetings, phone calls, a teleconference, or a web conference to the communication methods. Make sure two-way communication is part of the plan. (In two-way communication, the audience gets to comment and ask questions.)

If you use several methods of communicating, you won’t doom your written message to fail. And you won’t lose valuable employees, customers, or vendors who feel resistant to your news.

What does your company do in situations like Dave’s?


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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.

3 comments on “Managing Resistant Readers”

  • Interesting dilemma.

    Taking mundane matters which restrict rather than enhance freedoms is one of the few places humour can actually help…

    A cartoon saying “would you buy from him”? showing a group of really scruffy people might help if in a corporate environment…particularly if they put the faces of wellknown management figures in the cartoons.

    What andrew carnegie did , in win friends and influence people, is interesting. He gave a group of illicit indoor smokers a cigar and said “boys, please smoke these outside instead” – cialdini reciprocation psychology at work.

    In that vein maybe they could announce a down dressing day on fridays, in order to send the clear message that the rest of the week was 100% dress code.

    Having said all that, the best is always personal communication, so even if written, it has to be written as a very personal me and you letter from the boss.

  • Hi, Mike. I like your ideas. The cartoon, if risky, would get everyone talking.

    When Dale Carnegie offered the cigars, was the cigar considered a better smoke? An acquired taste? Or just a different one? Was he saying that if they would smoke outside, he would reward them? I am trying to figure out his strategy.

    Thanks for getting involved.


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