Feb 29

Print this Post

If your client doesn’t understand your advice, can you say you’ve given it to them?

The classic advice-giving conundrum: you’re giving advice to a client/patient/customer who just wants the headlines and isn’t interested in the detail.  But you have an obligation to give them full advice – perhaps a legal requirement or a professional obligation means that you have to be able to prove that you gave full advice.

This scenario comes up in a lot of professions.  Some examples:

  • a doctor needing to inform a patient about the risks of a particular procedure, so that the patient can give informed consent;
  • a lawyer advising a client about their prospects of success before a trial;
  • an accountant recommending a particular tax strategy to a client.

What so often happens is that your advice becomes a “covering your back” advice – a long and convoluted written statement of all the possible risks and permutations, designed to be evidence that you gave absolutely complete advice.  The problem with this is that the focus is on you, the writer, trying to cover your back – there’s almost no focus on your reader (that is, your client/patient) at all.  The result is that often the reader has no hope of understanding what you’ve written.

If your “covering your back” advice is so complicated that your client can’t understand it, have you actually covered your back at all?  Can you say that you really did give the full advice you needed to?

Not long ago, I saw a letter advising a client about whether to settle a family dispute.  The client was just an ordinary person with an ordinary job and an ordinary education.  The letter was fifteen pages long.  It had an excerpt from an actuarial table in it.  It jumped from the past to the future and back again.  I had trouble understanding it, and it’s my job to understand that sort of thing.

The point of that letter was so that the lawyer could show that they’d given full information to the client to help him decide whether or not to settle the case.  The lawyer hadn’t really thought about how to write it so that the client could understand it.  I’d argue that that letter of advice didn’t actually give any useful advice at all.

It’s so important to write with your reader in mind.  Writing advice for your own purpose (to prove you’ve met your professional obligation) probably means that your reader won’t actually receive much of the advice you’re trying to give.

So how do you write an advice with your reader in mind?

  • Know your reader.  In the medical procedure example above, how comfortable is your patient with hospitals?  Do they know how to evaluate medical risk dispassionately, or will they be looking through very emotional lenses?  Have they had anything similar done before?  What’s their general understanding of their own condition?  In a legal situation, how long has your client been involved in the dispute?  Can they take a commercial view, or is that not possible?  Are they threatened by the legal process, or can they be objective about it?  Use all this information to help you get the tone right.
  • Anticipate your reader’s questions.  What are the things your client/patient is likely to want to know?  Make sure this information is presented clearly and is easy to find.
  • Remember that people are usually looking for an excuse to stop reading.  Anything your reader isn’t interested in will give them an excuse to stop reading.  You need to spend extra time on information your reader probably doesn’t care about, to make sure you’re communicating it in a way that’s attractive and clear.  Aim to make it clear enough to be understood on the first reading – assume that you won’t get a second reading.
  • Explain jargon and technical terms.  Even if your client or patient knows a lot about the situation already, they’re not an expert like you are.  Don’t assume they remember what everything means.
  • Write in plain English with a clear visual layout.
  • Get a colleague to read your draft.  I can’t overstate how important it is to have someone else read your writing.  It’s not a sign of weakness to ask someone to review it.  Get the person on the next desk to read what you’ve written and tell you what they think you’re driving at.  If you’ve got someone at work with a similar level of education to your client/patient, get them to read it.

Remember, if your advice can’t be understood, then you probably haven’t actually given the advice in the first place.

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/02/29/if-your-client-doesnt-understand-your-advice/

1 comment

  1. Katriina

    Your advice is insightful and spot-on. I am a lawyer who formerly worked for a big US firm in a non-English-speaking country, and some of the written “advice” we delivered to clients frustrated me beyond belief. Far too much of our written work product was complicated, long-winded, and written in language that I felt was too complicated for non-native speakers to understand without a struggle. Here’s to professionals presenting advice clearly and unambiguously, and fulfilling their professional responsibilities more fully! After all, you are supposed to be delivering “advice” or an “opinion”, not presenting an array of facts and figures and expecting the client to reach his or her own conclusions.

    I also found it helpful to summarize the crux of my advice in a few dot-points at the outset, and to follow up with a more detailed explanation. Also, this goes without saying, but I think professionals should follow up with a brief meeting or teleconference after delivering written advice, to talk things through and make sure that their message went through clearly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>