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Dangerous Writing: The Usual Suspects #1 - 4

Posted Jul 7, 2012, by Roy Speed

Dangerous writing

[This blog is the first in a three-part series addressing 12 high-risk writing behaviors your employees need to be aware of. Each of the images shown below is a link to a PDF of material we use to reinforce our training on these behaviors.

Be sure to check back for the other two entries, as well as the associated graphics.]

We believe that companies in industries heavily regulated or prone to litigation must create among employees what we call a good documents culture: a shared awareness and understanding of 1) the risk potential of even routine correspondence, and 2) what it means to made good decisions when writing or managing documents.

Now granted, if you're an attorney for a pharma, biotech, or medical-device company, such an awareness is old hat; you've been swimming in these waters for years. The point is, your employees swim in those same waters without anything like your awareness of the specific risks -- and they're the ones creating thousands of documents every day.

Bottom line: At your company, you need everyone on board.

To create a good documents culture, one of several things you must accomplish is educating employees about 12 writing behaviors we call "The Usual Suspects." These are the specific behaviors that can transform a perfectly good document into a bad document -- one that in a legal proceeding would have to be "explained" or that might prove useful to opposing counsel, even in the absence of any actual wrongdoing.

When we say "educate" employees about these behaviors, we mean something quite specific:

  • Give each behavior a name, something memorable.
  • Describe the behavior.
  • Give concrete examples of the kind of thing an employee in any pharma, biotech, or medical-device company might be tempted to write.
But that's not all. You must show employees how doing that particular thing in writing might prove damaging. Employees need to understand that plaintiffs' attorneys will look for anything -- any sentence, any phrase -- they might use to support claims that the company is unethical, deceitful, incompetent, or even just plain insensitive. Click to download PDF

In our training, we catalog these behaviors as follows:

No. 1: Vehemence
This behavior is about letting strong negative feelings make their way into your correspondence. Strong feelings in writing are not like an outburst in a meeting; in writing, they become part of an almost permanent record.

Here's an example:

There is a total absence of anything
resembling communication within this company.
I would not blame this investigator
for thinking us all idiots.

No. 2: Strong language
This is not to be confused with strong feelings. Strong language is language that, whether you intend it or not --

Click to download PDF
  • could be inflammatory;
  • could be interpreted as suggesting fault or error, when fault or error has yet to be determined;
  • could be interpreted as suggesting unscrupulous motives.


We can't let these guys into our market.

That we need a comparison drug
goes without saying, but let's not
rig the study.

The following example illustrates how strong language can sometimes be quite subtle:

The precise cause of death is as yet unknown,
but we've already been contacted by the family's lawyers.
Nonetheless, I believe that if we're proactive and move
quickly, we can still quell this incident.

You can use such examples to challenge employees: What's wrong with this passage? -- With the above example, employees may surprise you with how quickly they zero in on the word quell, which means not resolve or settle, but suppress or subdue. -- The key thing employees need to understand is how, when strung together with a dozen other carefully chosen examples, such writing might be used to suggest, say, conspiracy to suppress information.

Click to download PDF No. 3: Blaming
Exactly what it sounds like: pointing fingers in writing.

If you think about it, blaming is almost never really necessary to achieving any kind of business result, and when blame is assigned before anyone has all the facts in hand, it's downright irresponsible.


The Placiden product team screwed up big time.

Thanks to your insistence on cutting this
program, our reps are now untrained, unprepared
to launch this product, and probably spreading

Employees need to understand that opposing counsel is eager to catch us pointing fingers at one another, because they can use it to validate their own accusations: As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, their own words show...

Click to download PDF No. 4: Sarcasm (and exaggerating for effect)
Here we just mean saying in writing something not factual, that you don't really mean, in an attempt to be funny, clever, or dramatic.

We use the following example: In an email or a text, you refer to kids -- specifically, how difficult it is to manager your own nine-year-old. Then, with a reference to your company's popular sedative, you write:

What they need is Placiden. Every kid in America
should get it in their juicebox.

And here's the key moment: You must ask employees to fast- forward three, four, five years into the future to a legal or regulatory matter involving "Placiden," in which this message comes to light; you must ask them to imagine how that message is going to sound from the witness stand.

You must, in other words, become expert at enriching employees' imaginations about latent dangers.

Coming soon: The next four "Usual Suspects."


Roy Speed

Our Good Documents blog tackles the challenge of preventing bad documents: emails or other documents so ill-conceived or poorly written that, in a legal or regulatory situation, they would have to be "explained." — Please email me with any questions or issues you'd like to see addressed here.



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