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When Words Are Not Enough, Change Processes

A client emailed a request to employees who are registered for an upcoming Better Business Writing class I will teach. In her message, she asked them to email their answers to four prework questions to me.

Nearly all the employees have submitted their prework. However, 60 percent sent their responses to the client rather than to me.

Yes, 60 percent did not follow the client’s instructions, even though her subject line said this:

Quick Prework for June 14 Better Business Writing Class—Due Thursday, June 7—Please respond to instructor, Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Do you have times when your readers don’t behave as you intend despite the careful way you lay out information? It may be that your words are not enough. You may need to change your processes to make it easier for readers to respond appropriately.

My client has decided to have me send out the prework requests in the future. That way, class attendees will reply to me–not to her–and she won’t need to forward their emails to me. I like this idea and have used it successfully with other clients.

Here are other simple process changes:

  • Including a stamped, self-addressed envelope to increase the odds that readers will respond by postal mail.
  • Adding a meeting to a colleague’s Outlook calendar rather than waiting for him to respond to an email request.
  • Emailing a scanned copy of an invoice rather than mailing a paper original, when you know the client needs to scan the invoice before forwarding it to Accounting.
  • Emailing a reminder with log-in information 30 to 50 minutes before an online class to help attendees find the information when they need it.
  • Creating a job aid for employees to keep on their desktops rather than expecting them to look up common tasks in procedure manuals.

Your readers and users are human. If they are not responding the way you want to your written communication, consider whether words might not be enough. A change in your processes may bring about the behavior you want.

Do you remember a time when words were not enough and a change in process led to better responses? If so, please share your example!


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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.

10 comments on “When Words Are Not Enough, Change Processes”

  • Great examples, Lynn. I use a contract (or a Statement of Work) when working with clients. I found it was increasingly difficult to get signed copies returned. I changed my process to include an option for replying by email if they were in agreement with the terms. I changed the language to reflect the email response denoted their acceptance.

    Since changing the process, delays have been eliminated.

  • When I need responses back, I have found it is useful to include the language I want back. For example, the e-mail will say “Please respond back with one of the following (Your response is NOT optional):

    I have reviewed the documents and have no changes. They can be released as is.


    I have reveiwed the documents and have changes. They can be released once the changes I am including are made.”

    The respondant can then copy paste the appropriate response. I find that having to think of the response I want also makes me communicate what I am requesting more clearly.

  • At the risk of over commenting, I would add that I believe a huge leap is available when we can drive people’s responses using applications such as @task or Sharepoint. In such cases, you assign tasks or roles and the person assigned gets e-mails that link them to what you want them to do. Optimally, such a program sends reminders and tracks who is doing what and what has or hasn’t been done or is in progress.

    I think these programs have a bit of a learning curve and take some culture change in certain instances. They also require IT support to get the most out of them. Your examples above are simpler and get a lot more bang for your buck.

  • Hello, Jennifer. No worries about over-commenting. I appreciate your excellent suggestions.

    Regarding your suggestion to provide the language you want from the reader, I love the fact that you point out the communication benefit to your reader and to yourself. Writing the response you want does help you be clear.

    In your second post, you mention applications that help manage tasks. I do not have experience with those, but I imagine they are excellent when users accept and master them.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your successes.


  • Lynn, I don’t know what the content of the email said, but perhaps putting the instruction in the subject line was a mistake? Subjects should make it clear what the message is about – and hopefully encourage the addressee to read it – but I guess the message subject is even more quickly scanned than its body.
    You just can’t beat being crystal clear in your message what you expect the reader to do!

  • This post is extremely helpful! I really appreciate the idea that you may need to change your processes if words are not having the desired effect. I have posted on here in the past regarding my experience sending emails that clearly denote a directive is needed, only to receive a reply of “Thank you.” That’s just a little frustrating! 😉

    Jennifer’s comment about giving your reader options is helpful (although I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to write, “Your response is NOT optional” when emailing a customer!) I have also found that it helps to reiterate the outcome that will occur if a customer does *not* respond or responds inappropriately- e.g., “If I do not hear from you by Tuesday, the shipment will not arrive on time.”

    Thanks again for this great post!

  • Very true Lisa – I only use the “NOT optional” language internally, and then only in certain circumstances.

  • Hi, Paul. Thanks for mentioning the subject line. I believe its length probably discouraged readers from reading it completely. If the first line of the email had said “Please reply to Lynn Gaertner-Johnston,” the message might have been more successful.

    I agree–clarity is everything.


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