Monday, March 11, 2013

Don’t bury an action request

In an email, letter, or memo, there is a wrong place and a right place to request action.

The wrong place to request action

A few weeks ago, somebody in my doctor’s office mailed me a form letter that described some change in the way Medicare does something or other. The letter didn’t sound like my doctor; he is smart and highly efficient. No, the letter sounded more like a government bureaucrat; Medicare probably wrote the letter and then made my doctor send it to his patients.

As Joe Roy, confident medical patient, I was inclined to drop the letter into my wastebasket, figuring that my doctor knows how to deal with Medicare without any amateur assistance from me. But as Mr. Clarity, I’m always on the prowl for illustrative examples of bad writing, so I read the whole letter.

Compared to most government writing, the letter wasn’t too bad. But halfway down Page 2 was an unpardonable sin. An action request was buried in the text. It seems that unless I called a certain 800 number by a certain date, Medicare was going to do something to my medical records.

I’ll bet you not one patient in ten read that far.

The right place to request action

To make sure your reader sees your action request, type it above the main text.

The Takeaway: Readers do not expect to have to slog through 500 or 1,000 words of circumlocution to find out what the blazes you want from them. Type your action request above the main text.

A point about politeness: When I was chief editor at Honeywell Information Systems, I learned that many managers, with the good intention of not wanting to seem “abrupt” or “pushy,” bury their action requests intentionally. They sincerely believe that’s the polite way. Unfortunately, it ends up being impolite; in our fast-paced world, most readers would rather read a directly (but not rudely) stated request at the beginning than risk overlooking a request buried in the text.


  1. Maybe Medicare didn't want the patient do take action and for that reason buried the action request in the middle of page two. Maybe they wanted a free hand with medical records and would rather not have people object by taking action. Am I a cynic?

  2. allegra, I don't think you are a cynic. I think your interpretation is probably accurate.

  3. Great advice. The call to action should always be up front. I like to add it at the end, as well...

    In longer pieces, like reports, the same "up front" tactic works too. Add an Overview; just a couple of sentences.

    These days, everyone scans, no one has the time to read.