July 1, 2001
By Dean B. Thomson
As attorneys, we are constantly advising our clients to document job history, events, potential claims, etc. In this month’s Briefing Paper, we offer several “rules” of effective communication that every construction organization should keep in mind when writing documents.
Rule 1: Remember the five W’s. Your letter need only address five simple points: Who, Where, When, What and Why. The first three “W”s are easily taken care of by the Address (Who), “Re” line (Where), and Date (When) of your letter. The “What” is the information you want to communicate (e.g. “what” is the problem), and the “Why” is the action you want the recipient to take (e.g. “why” you are writing). After covering the five W’s, all you have to do is add postage.
Rule 2: Keep each project separate. Don’t write about two or three projects in a letter. It clutters your message, hinders tracking the response, and makes filing a nightmare.
Rule 3: Talk about a single issue or a group of closely related issues. Your letter will lose its focus if it contains too many points, and you are more likely to get a quicker response if you put only one issue on the table. If you are writing to memorialize an event (for example, for use as an exhibit in future litigation), then it is preferable that each exhibit contain only one issue. Single-issue letters are easier for a judge, jury, or arbitrator to assimilate.
Rule 4: Keep the letter short. Get to the point quickly. You are busy and so is your reader. Moreover, judges and juries fall asleep trying to grind through long letters.
Rule 5: Use subheadings. If a longer letter cannot be avoided, break its subjects down by subheadings. If you are reciting events, number them. Not only will this aid the reader, but it will also help you better organize your thoughts.
Rule 6: KISS. The KISS principle is the mantra of writing consultants: “Keep It Simple Stupid.” Write your letter so that an uninformed reader could understand the problem. After all, if you cannot solve your problem with the other party, you will eventually be asking an uninformed reader to understand your letter – – a judge or a jury.
Rule 7: Just the facts, Ma’am. Avoid anger, uninformed opinions, or conjecture. You want your letters to stand the test of time. In other words, will the letter look as good to you three months from now as it did the moment you wrote it? Although angry letters feel good to write, they rarely solve problems. In addition, when your blistering letter is read to a neutral fact-finder months later, you will usually be embarrassed and conclude that your anger does not reflect well on you or your company.
Rule 8: Get your letter to the decision-maker. Your normal contact may be relatively low in the food chain. Don’t send a “dead letter;” use the “cc” to get to the actual decision-maker.
Rule 9: Know the rules of communication in your contract. Often people are misled about their communication responsibilities by relying on how things have been done in the field or on past projects. The “front end” documents (e.g. General Conditions, Supplementary Conditions, Division l) should be reviewed for each project and a short summary prepared containing at least the following:
– Who is the required recipient of any notice?
– What manner of transmittal is required or accepted (e-mail, fax, mail, certified mail)?
– What is the notice deadline for notice of changes, delays, or differing site conditions?
– What are the response deadlines for proposal requests, or backcharge, default or termination notices?
– Who else should receive notice (e.g. owner’s lender for all changes, etc.).
These contract terms govern how you communicate on a particular project. Ignore them at your peril.
Rule 10: Ask for the answer you want. Unless you are simply recording events, you typically want a response to your letter. Guide the content of your letter toward the result you seek, then ask for a confirmation of the answer you propose.
Rule 11: Require specific action by a specific date. Once you have requested the answer you seek, set a deadline for the response. Don’t just propose a date. State what will happen if the response is not received by that date. For example, “Unless we get the requested information by X date, the concrete crew will not be able to pour beyond Y gridline and the project will suffer critical delays.” Once the date passes, send a letter stating that you will be keeping track of the costs caused by the failure to timely respond.
Rule 12: Be honest and accurate. No problem is worth compromising your professionalism and integrity.
These tested “rules” will save you time, improve your communications and help keep you out of trouble.
This discussion is generalized in nature and should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. © FWH&T