Background information that encourages action

I received a letter last week that got me thinking about how much background information writers should provide when they’re asking their reader to take some action.

I received a letter from my home insurance company, telling me that I needed to phone them within two days. There was no explanation of why I should make the call.

I did what I was told – but only because the letter was about my insurance, and I didn’t want to run the risk of my insurance policy being cancelled. If I received a similar letter from most other companies, I’d simply ignore it.

I really wanted to know why I was being asked to make the call – and I wanted that information before calling so that I could prepare for whatever was to follow. As it turned out, there was a minor problem with my insurance records that was easily fixed on the phone.

But, for me, that wasn’t the point. I was being asked to do something without being given any background information about why. And it’s always the underlying ‘why’ that persuades me to take action.

I have a similar problem with instruction labels on clothes. The instruction ‘do not machine wash’ is meaningless to me without an explanation of why. I usually ignore the instruction and rarely have problems. (Though I did machine wash a cushion once and discovered the ‘why’ the hard way – the cushion went lumpy!)

And I have the same problem with forms that ask me to provide information that I know is already held by the organisation. For example, why am I asked to provide my contact details and medical information every time my children go on a school excursion? The school already has that information. If I understood the underlying ‘why’, maybe I wouldn’t feel so annoyed every time I was asked to complete the form.

For communicators, this comes back to having a constant focus on the needs of readers. It’s about anticipating how readers might react to the information they’re being given or the action they’re being asked to complete. And it’s about providing them with the context – the ‘why’ – so that they’re motivated to take the action being encouraged.