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How to Lose Your Readers’ Trust

When I pay for my groceries at the supermarket, the cash register spits out coupons based on what I have bought. Recently I received one with this offer:

Buy any large [brand name] pizza between 2/23/15 and 3/22/15 and SAVE up to $3.00 on a future order with coupon.

Because I occasionally buy frozen pizza, I put the coupon in my pocket, then read it later. Here is the “fine print”:


Buy 2, get $1 OR

Buy 3, get $2 OR

But 4 or more, get $3 coupon for your next shopping order.

I am annoyed. Can you determine why?

“Buy any large pizza” was misleading. Any means “one,” yet there was no savings if I bought just one.

False or misleading promises erode readers’ trust in us as writers. This problem exists even beyond coupons and offers trying to sell products. Whenever we write, we must be sure our messages do not damage our readers’ trust and confidence in us.

Consider these situations, imagining you are the reader:

  1. A writer provides a link to a web page, noting that it will give you the specific information you need. When you click the link, it takes you to a generic home page, with none of the information you seek. How do you feel?
  2. A consultant emails you saying you will receive her proposal by the end of the week. But when you leave on Friday at 6 p.m., you still have not gotten it. Does this delay affect your opinion of the consultant?
  3. A meeting agenda says attendees will be able to ask questions about a new program. When you attend the meeting, the entire hour is taken up by the presentation. How do you feel about the meeting organizer?
  4. Your new assistant’s resume describes him as proficient in Microsoft Office. When you ask him to edit a PowerPoint presentation, he can’t seem to make simple changes in it. What is your reaction?
  5. Your manager gives you the written go-ahead to update the company’s Contact Us page. As soon as you do, he calls you in, upset that you didn’t ask his approval on the new content. How does this situation affect your relationship?

All five situations erode trust. And writers can avoid all five if they do one simple thing: ask themselves the question “Is this completely true?” and make changes when the answer is no.

  1. If the writer had asked “Is this true?” and clicked the link to confirm it, it would have been obvious that the page did not provide the information. He or she could have found the correct page and given you that link.
  2. If the consultant had questioned herself about the feasibility of her promise, she might have recognized that her week was too hectic and committed herself to a later date.
  3. The meeting organizer might have talked with the presenter to be sure the meeting would include time for questions.
  4. The new assistant’s resume might have said “proficient in Word, Excel, and Outlook” rather than claiming expertise in Microsoft Office.
  5. Your manager might have realized that he wanted to approve changes.

And the store coupon I received might have said “Buy large pizzas” rather than “Buy any large pizza.”

Ask yourself “Is this completely true?” before you click Send, Publish, or Post. That simple question can help you maintain your readers’ trust and confidence. (“Is this true?” may be sufficient, but I add the word completely to push to the heart of the content.)

How have business writers diminished your trust in them?


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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.

6 comments on “How to Lose Your Readers’ Trust”

  • These are all important points to remember, especially since I’ve been guilty of some.

    Thank you for starting, as you sometimes do, with a personal experience. It immediately pulls me in with an added importance above sample situations which are created to clearly demonstrate the point you are making.

  • Read article by “Walker Nancy” re Joe & Beverly to celebrate 60th wed. anniversary w/son, Joel anxious to surprise w/the wedding VIDEO & repurchase a NEW 1939 Plymouth bought by Joe to present to Beverly on their WEDDING DAY (1948), which had to be sold (FOR 10S OF THOUSAND DOLLARS)due to Joe being drafted & sent to Korea, leaving Bev w/baby Joel & no income. Story continues mentioning that time period and CASSETTE TAPES. TIME PERIODS OUT OF WHACK! NO CASSETTES OR VIDEOS EXISTED DURING THIS TIME PERIOD – INVENTED LATER YRS. CARS TODAY SELL FOR 10S OF THOUSANDS DOLLARS BUT NO WHERE NEAR THAT IN 1950. A 1939 PLYMOUTH WOULD NOT BE BRAND NEW AT THEIR 1948 WEDDING. Strongly suggest proof-reading by someone my age (83).

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