Friday, June 17, 2005

What’s the Point of Having a Point?

If you have read previous postings on WORDS ON THE LINE, you would know how big I am on placing an explicit purpose statement in business messages. Sentences such as “I propose that we purchase PDAs for the six staff researchers in our Cincinnati office” or “This root-cause analysis reports on the equipment failure in our Tacoma facility on June 3” keep the writer focused while composing the message. They also immediately ground the reader in the writer’s reason for transmitting the message; in effect, they instantly put the reader to work. Therefore, we should be sure to place a purpose statement early in our documents. My book The Art of On-the Job Writing discusses in detail the power of a purpose statement, so I stand behind this principle whenever I lead a corporate writing class.

Sometimes, however, a clearly established relationship with another reader may preclude the need for writing a purpose statement in an informal e-mail. This point was cleverly illustrated by Jong Chan, a Supervising Specialist for the New York State Insurance Department and a participant in one of my recent courses. I assigned to the participants a writing situation in which a trade show produced disappointing results for their company. I assumed that they would write to Larry, the trade show representative, a message in which they either notify him of their intention of no longer participating in his future trade fairs, or asking him for concessions and improvements to guarantee their future attendance.

Mr. Chan, an experienced manager who supervises high-level employees in his organization, chose a different approach, one he called “neutral.” Here it is:


The Chicago Trade Show raised concerns about the cost-benefit results for our company. We believe that it was too expensive and that your advertising underrepresented us.


Notice that he did not write a purpose statement, such as, “We will not attend future trade shows for the following reasons” or “We request a plan of action from you to ensure better results for our next appearance at your trade show.” Nevertheless, I know that I would have responded to the e-mail if I were Larry. After Mr. Chan read his message to the other participants, an audience of 20 professionals representing a broad range of business responsibilities and industries, I asked what they would do if they were Larry and they had received this message. Nearly all agreed that they would call Mr. Chan to see what they could do to keep him as a customer—precisely the result that Mr. Chan expected.

I congratulated Mr. Chan for achieving this interesting trick: being purposeful without writing a purpose. He proved that sometimes we do not need to write a purpose—as long as our readers can read our minds! But even Mr. Chan would agree that for most readers, we should play it safely and assert our purpose.