I won a huge battle last year for my daughter. HUGE. Like, $300k+ PER YEAR kind of huge. Almost entirely by email. So here’s my advice for how to advocate for yourself (and whānau, friends, employees, all the good humans who need your support) by email.
Before you write, you need to be clear on these things:
What the problem is, factually
How the problem is affecting you
Your understanding of where in the system or service, the problem is happening
The outcome you want
If there’s any compromise you’re willing to make
Seriously, don’t even think about emailing until you’re clear on those things – even if you answer to any of them (like #3) is “I don’t know.” You still need to think them all through.
How to write the email:
Greet politely, but not fake friendly
Express how you’re feeling, very succinctly
State the problem, factually and concisely – and if you can add the solution here, that’s even better
If there’s a lot of background or you need to give a lot of detail to explain the problem, divide it into sections with headings and bullets. Include anything you know or suspect about where or why the problem might be happening
Offer a solution – and if there’s any way you can make this a win-win, that’s your best bet
Now be a bad-ass or kiss-ass: end with a threat or a human pleas for kindness
What I can’t stress to you enough is how you need to be as brief and factual as possible. You need to make it EASY for the person to help you. Don’t expect them to read your novel of pain and frustration. Use headings and bullets because this person will SKIMREAD and you want to help them do it easily.
What might that look like?
Example 1 (it worked, btw)
Example 2 (it worked, btw)
No joy first time? That’s normal. Don’t take it personally.
Time to escalate.
You need to make sure you’re contacting the right person. Yes, you’ll have started with some kind of customer service or complaints or support email. Or maybe it was the person you usually have contact with in that service – like a case manager. We always need to be aware, though, that those frontline people often have limited authority. We almost always have to start our advocacy process with them, but that is NOT the end of the story.
Do your research, then, about the structure of the organisation. Who is their manager? Who’s the regional manager? Who holds the budget for the thing you’re asking for?
And if that contact person you have won’t escalate your concerns, know what channels you have for escalating things yourself. Is it an ombudsman? Is it a complaints authority? Is it that you get public on their social media page? (I get good results with this when I’m not getting fast enough action).
OK, so you’ve taken care of your up-front framing, and you’ve started to drill down to the clarity you need to write an amazing, fit-for-purpose document that’s gonna help you take over the universe. Now you’ve got to the real guts of it! How to strip back your business writing so that your message isn’t lost in all that wordy noise.
Now you’re thinking: So what do I actually write?
Why is writing so hard?
So here’s the thing. You know your stuff. And that’s both a blessing and a curse, because
you know everything your reader needs to know, but
YOU KNOW FAR MORE THAN YOUR READER NEEDS TO KNOW!
And you really want your reader to know all that, too.
The more words you use—the more text on a page, the more you think in someone’s general direction—the more likely they are to miss your point.
Your bottom line.
Your slap in the face.
Or kick in the ass.
Or pat-on-the-back (I thought I’d better add in a warm fuzzy—apparently my violent alter-ego is writing today).
Filtering through everything you know and want to say—and stripping back to only the key points—is the real challenge.
A process for stripping back
First of all, read and follow the steps I gave you in part 1. Then part 2. There’s stuff in there you need to produce before you follow this process.
Once you’ve nailed that, do this:
1 – DUMP: get that shit out of your head. Brain dump. Sketch, purge, free-write, list, use post-its. Do whatever you need to do, to get your thinking outside of your head. Because outside is where you can work with it.
2 – CHUNK: take that messy dump and group it together into chunks of related info. (If you wanna feel really cool, call this a thematic analysis.)
3 – LABEL: describe each of those chunks of info. But don’t use one-word labels. Describe the chunk, like ‘How we got here’, ‘What we found’, ‘How we can fix the problem’. These will become your headings. And your readers will L O V E them!
Maybe/I’m not sure/Some readers need it. Then either mention it, summarise it, point the reader to where they can find it outside of the document, or push it to the appendices. When in doubt, go to the appendix. It’s like magic. All the evidence that you know your stuff and you’ve done a shitload of work and you’re worth your weight in gold, without losing your reader.
5 – ORDER: look at the chunks you have left and put them in order based on what’s most important to YOUR READER.
Now you have a plan
Some people might call it an outline.
But that sends way too many of us back into PTSD-like flashbacks from our university days.
So let’s just call it a plan. A map, maybe.
That plan means you can now write. With ease and clarity. Without second-guessing yourself and angsting over what to say or what not to say.
But what’s really exciting (yes, even more exciting than me being a keynote!), is this global opportunity we have to create necessary, life-changing systems, where we all simply #writelikeahuman and change the world!
With clarity on outcome and influential readers, you can create a fit-for-purpose structure.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like. But again, unicorn farts.
From where YOU sit, with YOUR reader knowledge, expert and insight, and with new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle. You can now create a structure that will work best for you and your team.
Remember, ask yourself:
What does my PRIMARY READER need to know so I can get MY desired outcome?
Does my PRIMARY READER need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?
Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum.
If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).
Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper. (Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)
What the fuck is this? You wonder. (You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank fuck)
What are they selling? You wonder. (There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)
So are the prices any good? You wonder.
(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)
Content and purpose
The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.
In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose.
Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.
In fact, that warrants more discussion.
Watch out for Part 2 and 3 of Writing For Outcomes!
If you’re working from home, you’re emailing. And in this chaos, no-one has time for email ping-pong!
People ask me a lot about how to deliver hard messages by email.
My answer? Keep it short, keep it simple, and above all, be MATTER-OF-FACT.
The art of being matter-of-fact – (avoid the dramas, people!)
What do I mean, hard messages?
I mean the emails you don’t want to send.
The ones you procrastinate. The ones where you need to let someone know you disagree. or the ones where you need to push-back or the dreaded NO email.
I also get asked how to let someone down gently, how to decline a request, how to say “this isn’t for me” (and no, I’m not talking about breaking up your relationship by email. #BeAGoodHuman).
What we get wrong with the hard messages
We think we need to justify our position
We really don’t. Or we don’t need to go into detail, anyway.
We think that if we’re saying no to someone that we need to give lots of good reasons so they can see where we’re coming from and ULTIMATELY so they still think we’re a decent human.
But the problem with this is that every justification you provide when saying no to someone is another opportunity you’re giving them to argue or push back. It’s another door they think they can get a foot in to change your mind. To help you see things their way. If you don’t want that to happen, if you want them not to have a comeback, just say no with minimal reason.
Is IS your right to say NO. We live in the age of consent and all that.
We think we need to use a formal voice to sound more professional
Please don’t make me say it again.
The formal voice is problematic.
It’s no longer fit for purpose. It causes problems. It doesn’t come across as polite, it comes across as all kinds of bad things.
You could read about it here, here or here (I may have mentioned it a few times before).
We try to soften the message
And that just makes it less clear!
Do you know what’s worse than getting bad news?
Having to work hard to find out what the bad news is.
The other problem with the softening is emotional leakage. The more we narrate, the more we write sentences and paragraphs, the more chance there is for your emotions to leak through (passive aggressive, anyone?) or for someone to *think* they can read between the lines.
Avoid that by being as factual and brief as possible
Avoid emotional leakage by staying matter-of-fact.
How to sound matter-of-fact
Ask yourself, “What is the high-level message I want to get across?”
WRITE IT DOWN. IN ONE BREATH. ONE SHORT STATEMENT.
Now imagine if you’d say those words to someone’s face. No? Feels a bit harsh?
Good – you need to identify that. So now, what would you change?
Then, if you need to soften, use a “sorry” but don’t use an “unfortunately.”
What might that look like?
We don’t need dramas.
Let’s just be good humans, be boundaried, be awesome, and get shit done.
Being #matteroffact will help you do that.
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