Is Your Standardized Correspondence Reader-Centered?

In planning the curriculum for the business writing class I teach, I reviewed George Searles’s text, Workplace Communication: The Basics, a book that I found to be very readable and very helpful.

Searles offers many terrific lessons and a great deal of succinct advice. But there was one “aha!” tidbit in particular that I found to be profoundly important for those who represent the public sector in their communication. That tidbit was the idea of reader-centered phrasing in one’s writing–that is, phrasing that focuses on the reader’s interests and knowledge rather than the writer’s.

For example, a listing of office policies and contact information may indicate that “We don’t take phone calls after 3pm on Wednesdays.” With reader-centered rephrasing, this becomes “You may reach us by phone until 3pm on Wednesdays.”

Where the first statement is likely to elicit a frustrated sigh and perhaps a knowing statement made to a friend about the expected work ethic in a government office, the second is unlikely to even give the reader pause.

It’s amazing the difference a few words can make, isn’t it?

Compare: “We cannot process your claim because you did not submit the required forms,” with “We will process your claim as soon as we receive the required forms.”

If this latter statement also includes a second sentence listing what those required forms are, so much the better. Perhaps this information was shared in a previous communication, but when it takes only 20 seconds of your time to list itagain, you gain that much additional goodwill from the reader. Just imagine yourself as the recipient and you can see the difference it makes.

Heaven knows that goodwill from citizens toward government offices is something it would behoove us to cultivate any chance we get.

Now, it’s one thing to resolve to use this sort of reader-centered phrasing as we go forward responding to inquiries, applications, and the like. But what about all those templates you use to streamline your communications: the files you open, change the name of the recipient, update the date, and send to print? What about all those form letters used by your colleagues?

I invite you to pull out one of the letter or email templates you’ll be using in the next week and review it for any opportunities to revamp the sentences to be more reader-centered. Then share any changes you made in the comments below!