ATD Blog

Don’t Make Risky Assumptions

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Most people have been told (perhaps repeatedly) to think about the reader when they write, yet that sensible advice is frequently forgotten. Readers end up staring at words, mumbling, How am I supposed to make sense of this?

The reason this happens is because writing is a self-centered activity. We focus on what we need to say, what we don’t need to include, what we think are key details, and how we should convey the information. But in writing from our own perspective, we make assumptions, which can be risky for managers who must ensure their teams receive clear, accurate information to do their jobs.

Writers who strive to be good communicators should avoid these pitfalls:

Don’t assume the reader will know what you mean.

People often overestimate the reader’s knowledge of a topic. You also might be closer to the information than the reader is. Maybe the reader wasn’t part of all the discussions or hasn’t focused on it for a few weeks. Don’t assume they will immediately grasp your message.

For instance, when you open a message with “In response to your question from earlier this week …” you are assuming the reader knows what question you are referring to. Now they have to search through old emails to locate the message and remember the question.

We know what we’re talking about, but we often don’t look at the words in front of us and ask, Will that make sense to the reader? Your readers are immersed in their own tasks and projects, and they too face a daily email avalanche.


The subject line should be specific.

Just because you have a subject line doesn’t mean readers will know what your message is about. Most subject lines are too vague to be useful.

A subject line, like a news headline, should give the reader a glimpse into the core message—the central idea. Be as specific as possible so that you address questions the reader is asking, such as Why should I read this? Why is it worth my time?

For example, if you have a question about a meeting agenda, don’t just say meeting. Say Question re: strategy mtng agenda. (Abbreviations are acceptable to make a subject line more specific.)


State your purpose in writing clearly and quickly.

Readers appreciate knowing early in a message why you wrote and its context, which can often be encapsulated into one to three sentences. But readers are often forced to muddle through paragraphs to try to discern the point.

Making a vague reference to various topics or conversations leaves the reader puzzled. When readers don’t know where they are going, they will leave (or they may continue but will skim it and miss the point you’re trying to make).

Don’t leave it to the reader to find the message.

Many messages are disorganized because the writer puts thoughts down as they emerge and doesn’t go back to rearrange information. The assumption often is, “Well, it’s all in there somewhere. The reader will find it.” Not necessarily ... and it’s also not their job.

When readers can’t understand or miss key information, it is almost never their fault. Follow the tips above to ensure your communications are clear, complete, and comprehensive.

About the Author

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach who has helped thousands of business professionals worldwide improve their ability to craft clear, compelling messages. He started Writing With Clarity following a long journalism career with the Associated Press and now conducts corporate workshops and provides one-on-one coaching. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill). His clients include Facebook, GE, Dell, Chevron, Cisco, Georgia-Pacific, KPMG, Campbell’s Soup, Oracle, Motorola, Reebok, Dow Chemical (China), SAP (Singapore), and Vale Mining Corp. (Brazil).

Sign In to Post a Comment
Assumption making is one the hindrances to a good communication. Thanks for this read.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.

Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.