Making people do what you want, through writing!

POSTED: Sep. 14, 2016

No, I’m not talking about mind control, but something much easier. Follow the below steps and you can greatly increase the probability that your reader will do what you want. First, I believe that people, in general, are helpful (but to a limit). They are willing to spend some (short) time to do what you ask of them. The key is how much time they are willing to spend.

We get a first impression of someone in person in 15 to 30 seconds. Well, for writing it’s actually much shorter than that! According to my own informal survey, most people only give a new email or letter three to five seconds before they decide that it can wait. Therefore, we must convey our key points within that short time frame.

Here are three best practices to getting people to do what you want through writing. All of these will help improve the effectiveness of your action items and main points.

  1. Easy to Find
  2. Easy to Understand
  3. Grouped Together

These elements contribute to maximizing the chance that your readers will see all of your action items and do them. Otherwise, they may miss one (or more). In the worst case, they won’t do any of them.

If the readers can find your action items in three to five seconds, then they already know what you want from them before they decide not to read any further.

Now, let’s look at each of those three elements in more detail to see how you can apply them in your writing.

1. Easy to Find

The Middle is Mud

Remember my #1 Business-writing rule: The middle is “mud. How fast can you find what the reader needs, in the sample below?

We (Jack Johnson and I) would like to get clarification on the policy and guidelines with regard to customer/distributor notifications. Specifically, what can we send electronically and what we must send as hard copy? This request is in general; I am not concerned if we are under contract with a customer or distributor because the contact states specifically how the notification has to be delivered.

Let’s try it a different way:


Please clarify what we can send electronically and what we must send as hard copy.


Jack Johnson and I are confused about the policy and guidelines with regard to customer/distributor notifications. This request is in general; I am not concerned if we are under contract with a customer or distributor because the contact states specifically how the notification has to be delivered.

In order to keep your action items out of the mud, put them as close to the top as possible. This means that your reader will come to your action items sooner, rather than later. The optimal position for action items may vary with your specific situation.


Writing persuasively often requires your main point to be at the bottom, especially when writing to someone who already has an opposing view of the topic. You first want to present reasonable points that are easy to agree to, and build your case. Then once you’ve got them nodding their head in agreement, point out why your main point is valid.

If you must put your action item in the middle (which is sometimes unavoidable), check out my advice on how to get rid of mud. In summary, the following will help draw attention to your action items in the middle:

Effective use of white space

Make more, shorter paragraphs instead of fewer longer ones.


Effective use of lists and tables

Know when to use a list and tables. This will help you to organize your information in a way that is easy for the reader to understand quickly.


Good formatting

Be aware of how your document looks, and how comfortable it is to read. Don’t just think about paragraphs, but also numbers or different types of data that you may include.



That being said, rules are made to be broken, and there’s always an exception. There is, in fact, a legitimate reason you might want to separate your action items. In this case, you will substitute “Key Points” for “Action Items,” as the techniques are the same. This particular situation is one that may be familiar to you. I’m talking about the Pre-Approved Credit Card junk mail that is so common.

Think about the credit card advertisement. When you first see it, what jumps off the page at you? It’s always the low interest rate. Think about how they emphasize that low APR. They make the text size huge and leave white space around it to draw your attention.

However, they de-emphasize other features like annual fees, late payment fees, etc. We call it “fine print” for a good reason! You can bet it will be buried in the “mud.”

The only time I recommend putting your key points in the middle is when you’re delivering bad news and want to “hide” it as much as possible. The same can be done verbally; some people call it “the compliment sandwich.” First, you say something nice about someone, and then something that you want them to improve, and you finish with another compliment. You bury the bad news in the “mud.”

2. Easy to Understand

To make action items clear and easy to understand, it is essential to consider the amount of relevant details. In order to decide how much detail to include, think first about your purpose and your audience.


What are you trying to accomplish?

If you do not have this clearly in mind before you begin writing, how will the reader be able to figure it out? Some common purposes are to:

  • Provide information
  • Request information or help
  • Persuade the reader to your side
  • Seek agreement or confirmation, i.e. time of a meeting

Your purpose will influence how much detail you need to include. If you are just relaying the results of the meeting last Thursday, don’t include a transcript of the discussion; I only need to know what decisions were reached so that I can complete my tasks.


  • Who are your readers?
  • What do they want?
  • How much do they know?
  • How much do they need to know?

Considering these questions will help you to get into the mind of your reader. Remember: unless it is a diary, you are not writing for yourself. You’re writing so that someone else can read what you’ve written and understand a specific idea. By beginning “with the end in mind,” you can maximize the chance that your reader correctly understands what you want to convey.

By combining the purpose with the intended audience, you can craft documents that will achieve your specific purpose with your intended audience.


When you’re writing your action items, use clear, plain wording. This is not the place to impress everyone with your extensive vocabulary. This is business writing; the goal is to get the point across clearly and quickly. Unless you’re writing technical instructions for a laboratory procedure using volatile chemicals you probably don’t need lots of technical jargon.

3. Grouped Together

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often I find action items sprinkled all throughout the document. I’ve often seen emails that have a nice list of three action items. Then, at the bottom, just above the closing, they say something like:

“Oh, and please email Sam and let him know what you’ve decided.”

That is an action item. It should be above with the others. In this case, it’s very easy to miss that last-minute addition. This is precisely why I say that all action items should be grouped together, so that the reader doesn’t have the chance to miss one.

Accommodating different readers

This can be a tricky thing. If you have been working on a project for the past month, and now you need to loop in someone else on the project team to give support, it’s quite likely that that person will not know the history of the project or the relevant background information. However, if you send an email to the entire team with all the background information, that is unnecessary for them, you risk them not reading the entire message and thereby losing some action items.

In this scenario, you have two options:

  1. Write a separate email to the new team member to catch him/her up on what you’ve been doing.
  2. Start including the new team member on group emails AND put a background section at the bottom of the message (below your action items).

I prefer the second option. Make sure that your background section is clearly labeled with a subtitle. Using subtitles in your writing has benefits for both the writer and the reader. What are those benefits? I’ve listed them below for you.

Why use subtitles?

Benefits for writer

Benefits for readers

  • Allows you to write faster, since the outline is apparent.


  • Allows you to stay on track. If you are interrupted, it’s easy to pick up where you left off.

  • Allows them to choose to read OR skip a section, such as the background.


  • Allows them to refer to document easily in the future.

Try some of these tips to help you improve the quality of your action items. I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results. What else do you do to make sure that your readers get your key points and actually do what you ask them to do?

If you would like to make your writing more compelling, contact Kent State University’s Center for Corporate and Professional Development to learn more about “Business Writing” for you and your team.