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    What a Chihuahua Can Teach About Writing

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Last weekend I took my 6.5-pound Chihuahua, Dobie, to a new vet for a checkup. That's always a stressful event. Dobie trembles at being away from home, among strangers and clinical smells. I worry about him snapping at a doctor, though he's surprisingly patient with needles.

    I mention "new vet" because we recently quit the vet downtown. That business always left me feeling uneasy. Although the staff fawned over Dobie at the front desk, the attention seemed sort of smarmy. Then somehow, between "additional tests" and "recommended procedures," I always ended up paying 50-100 percent more than I'd been quoted on the phone. And once they had my check, their interest quickly turned to someone else. But the clincher was when the doctor strapped a muzzle on my little dog. We never went back.

    By contrast, the staff at the new office took the time to put both Dobie and me at ease. When it came time to draw blood (not easy from such a tiny guy) and give shots, the doctor asked what would make Dobie, and me, most comfortable. I mentioned the muzzle, and she said, "I'm sure that won't be necessary." So while I stood in the surgical room, telling Dobie what a good dog he was, a technician gently held him in place, and the doctor calmly plied her needles. Dobie stared straight ahead, trembling, but he didn't snap, growl, or even whine.

    What does this dog story have to do with business writing? It involves audience. The old vet lost a customer (and gained a detractor) by treating me and my dog like products, to be dealt with as quickly and profitably as possible. The new vet gained an admirer (and vocal advertiser) by respecting me and my dog as living beings, by seeking to understand our needs and how to best engage us.

    Writing involves a similar challenge. When it is too author focused, it can feel like an information dump, pressing the reader to accept a fixed conclusion, or just requiring too much work to understand. However, when a writer takes time to imagine the audience, predict what questions they might have, include all the necessary data, and then trust readers to make an informed decision, the writing feels respectful and is therefore more effective.

    Learning to engage readers takes practice. More importantly, it requires a shift in attitude. As Stephen R. Covey puts it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Seek first to understand, then be understood." The new vet took time to understand me and my little dog. As a result, Dobie understood that this person, though causing him some pain, meant him no harm. It all comes down to honest communication.

    —Lester Smith