Monday, September 20, 2010

Do it! Do it now, this way! Here!

A company my company works with is putting on a luncheon for our staff, and as the marketing person at my company, I am helping to coordinate. The person I’m working with at the other company (let's call her Anna) sent me several emails asking me to pick a menu, after which she would circulate the menu to her company. This was followed by several requests to pick certain menus.

None of Anna's emails contained menus; I couldn't for the life of me figure out what she wanted. When I asked, she reiterated, Pick a menu! And then finally attached one. But she attached ONE menu, with several choices on it. At this point, she'd given me so many vague directions that I was flummoxed. I needed a GPS (or satnav for my UK readers) to figure out where to go here.

What it came down to, after several back and forth emails where I basically went “Duhhhhh,” and one phone call during which she was far clearer than she'd been in her emails, is that she wanted me to pick two entrees from the list of entrees on the menu. We would both then ask the people attending from our companies which of the two entrees they wanted.

Okay, picking yummy food: that I could deal with. So why couldn’t I understand that this is what she wanted in the first place? Because she never said so!

It was a good reminder that when you’re asking someone to do something, be it an agent respond to your query or whatever else, be clear about what you’re asking. Here are three ways to get that done:

1. Give them steps if necessary. This is a trick from my technical writing days. Using numbered steps gives people an ordered sequence, and is much more concrete than bulleting lists out, or jumbling your request in a paragraph that might be skimmed.

2. Put it clearly, and at the end. It’s a call to action. Many people skim email. Put at the bottom (and don’t hide it in your signature either), “So please do X,” or “may I send you the manuscript?”

3. Watch the pushiness. It’s a fine line between requesting certain actions from someone, and directing them in a style more suited to a dictatorship. Don't assume the person knows what you want and don't assume they'll guess what to do without explicit instructions. I have assumed what I thought were incredibly basic inferences in email at work, only to find that the recipient had not made the connection and therefore didn't do what I wanted.

So, apart from ending your query letters with calls to action--which I think most agents know how to respond to queries, how does this relate to writing? Vagueness, an affliction I suffered from hugely in my early stories (and even a current one). I tried to hide an important plot element because I wanted it to be a surprise, but in fact the reader had no idea whatsoever what I was talking about and had to make her own connections, which didn't work. Be clear. Say what's going on. And in business correspondence (including queries), making it clear what you want. You wouldn't want to waste almost two weeks, email time, and ultimately phone time to have to figure it out.

(The food that I chose, by the way, was: Tuscan chicken stuffed with Boursin cheese and topped with roasted tomato couli and served with Israeli cous cous and seasonal veg, OR Grilled hanger steak with blackberry ketchup, roasted Yukon gold and garnet yams, and seasonal veg. Oh, and I got to pick the dessert, too--once I'd spoken to Anna and found out that I could-- and I chose pound cake with fresh berries and whipped creme. I get to eat this food next week.)


Tina Lynn said...

-_- You made me really hungry...

Jenna Wallace said...

Good advice.

And drat, after that list of food, a piece of toast just ain't gonna cut it for my breakfast.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Excellent and timely advice that I wish more people would follow!

Linda G. said...

Excellent advice. And now I, too, am hungry. I've never had blackberry ketchup--sounds yummy.

Travener said...

Yummy. I fear e-mail has put the art of giving clear directions -- or being clear about anything -- into greater peril than ever. People just throw stuff out without thinking about people just throwing stuff out, so people just throw stuff out and then throw it out there. People do.

Anne R. Allen said...

Excellent advice. So often people act like 2-year-olds, getting furious when people can't read their minds.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks guys. Sometimes I think well, it's hard to guess how someone's going to read a direction, but on the other hand, as the direction-giver, you've got to TRY.

I'll report on that blackberry ketchup next week!

Tawna Fenske said...

Oh, I'm starving!

Great point about clarity in email. I think people too often subscribe to the theory that if they just put a lot of words in there, it'll make it clear what they want. They don't think about the fact that people tend to skim, and that the lack of a clear call-to-action often sets the default action to "delete."


Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Mmm, good choices on the food!

And great advice. I tend to give detailed directions for most things--which has earned me a certain reputation with babysitters and family members.

Before I had my son, when I'd leave my dog with my parents, I'd have a typed of page of notes on how to handle him, what he liked, his routines, etc. SO you can only imagine what that list looks like now that I have a kiddo. o.O

I probably missed my calling as a technical writer, lol.

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