Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Empathy for the non-technical reader

Many years ago, while working as a senior editor for Honeywell, I taught an in-house night course on business writing. The students were wonderful to work with: they were highly motivated adults who were taking the course voluntarily, to advance their careers.

I began the course with the important topic of empathy. I explained why a writer must try to understand as much as possible about the intended reader. In business writing, that means especially the reader’s position, responsibilities, amount of experience, and level of knowledge.

As the course progressed, I noticed that some of the more technical people in the class were having difficulty empathizing with non-technical readers. They understood the concept – don’t assume that your readers know things that they probably do not know – but they were having difficulty writing accordingly. They kept sliding back into their habitual writing style: writing for their technical peers.

What they needed was a good example. They needed to look at a technical manual that successfully included all the background that a beginner would need in order to understand and use the manual. I brought to class a famous example: The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook.

Cooking is actually a technical topic. It involves precise lists of ingredients – sometimes unfamiliar ingredients. It involves measurements (volumes, weights, counts, temperatures and durations). It involves multi-step processes that in most cases must be followed strictly as to tools, technique, sequence and timing. Almost every recipe requires some knowledge, skill or experience that many readers do not have.

This cookbook assumes that the reader knows virtually nothing. For example, that he may not know a chef’s knife from a carving knife; or what an eggplant looks like or how to buy one; or how to boil (more correctly, cook) an egg. The book explains all this, and much more, via words and pictures. This masterly cookbook showed my students how to keep their writing simple. It made the concept of the non-technical reader come alive. I have used the same cookbook in teaching and coaching ever since.

The Takeaway: If your work requires that you empathize with non-technical readers, learn how from a master. Buy or borrow a copy of The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook (1980), by Zoe Coulson. (My comments in this post apply only to the 1980 edition.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Nine words at Dunkin’ Donuts (3)

In two earlier posts (1), (2), I discussed two clarity errors in a nine-word sign displayed in the drive-through window of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

The sign reads: “Please ask if you need condiments for your order” [sic: no period].

There is one more clarity error. The people who wrote and approved the copy were trying not to say this: “The company is willing to provide only those condiments that you need – not those you merely want or would like.”

This insinuated emphasis on customer needs rather than customer wants and likes is part of a growing indolence in retail and service companies.

Example: In many stores, cashiers today typically ask, “Do you need a bag?” The wording implies that they will give you a bag only if you need one – not because you would find one convenient. They used to say, “Would you like a bag?”

Example: When a customer thanks a clerk, waiter or cashier for some small courtesy, the reply is usually, “No problem.” It used to be, “You’re welcome.” Most service people used to be eager to please you; now they will please you only if it is not a “problem” for them to do so.

Example: When restaurant guests pay their checks with cash, many waiters ask, “Do you need change?” The traditional and polite custom was to bring back the change unless the guest said to keep it.

In effect, the waiters are now saying, “I’m assuming that you intended to leave me a tip. I’m further assuming that the amount of my tip is the difference between the check total and the amount of cash here, however large that difference may be. So I’ll just collect my tip right now – unless you tell me, out loud, that you need some of that difference.”

This is a contemptible hustle. It takes unfair advantage of the guests’ good manners and, possibly, shyness. For if a guest says, “Yes, I need change,” the waiter, already having established himself as a bully, may ask, “For what? Cab fare home?”

So, a large and growing number of retail and service businesses are saying, in effect: “We don’t care about what you would like or what you want. We will give you only what you need. And we – not you – will be the final judges of what you need.”

The Takeaway: If you run a retail or service business, use secret shoppers to find out whether your front-line employees are using the kind of language that you intend them to use. You may be shocked to discover the hostility some of your employees are conveying to your customers. Don’t underestimate the damage these saboteurs can do. Only a small percentage of the offended customers will bother to complain to you. The others will quietly switch to your competition and never bring you another dollar.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nine words at Dunkin’ Donuts (2)

In an earlier post, I discussed a clarity error in a nine-word sign displayed in the drive-through window of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

The sign reads: “Please ask if you need condiments for your order” [sic: no period].

There is another clarity error: the people who wrote and approved the copy were trying not to say something clearly. They were trying not to say that Dunkin’ Donuts order-takers will neither ask you which condiments you would like nor automatically pack any condiments – even the most popular ones – in your order. For example, if you order hash browns (potatoes) and do not mention ketchup, you will get no ketchup.

In short, the sign is not saying this: “We do not pack any condiments in your order unless you ask us to. Please ask us for any condiments you would like.”

The Takeaway: If you run a retail or service business, try to state your policies directly and clearly. If you ever notice that you’re having difficulty doing that, and you’re feeling stressful, stop writing for a moment. Ask yourself: “Why does this policy embarrass me?” I do not presume to tell you what your policies should be. But as a writing coach, I caution you that intelligent customers will see through any evasive language you may use to articulate your policies – and they will probably conclude that you are devious.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Nine words at Dunkin’ Donuts (1)

In the drive-through window of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop, I saw this sign: “Please ask if you need condiments for your order” [sic: no period].

I asked the cashier, “Do I need condiments for my order?”

The cashier asked, “What?”

In an amiable tone of voice I explained, “The sign says that I should ask if I need condiments for my order. So, I’m asking. Do I need condiments for my order?”*

She got it. She said, “Oh. The sign. Yes. It should say, ‘If you need condiments for your order, please ask for them.’ ”

Apparently, Dunkin’ Donuts employs at least one cashier who can think more clearly than one corporate bureaucrat can write.

That same nine-word sign also contains two other clarity errors. I’ll discuss them in future posts.

The Takeaway: Be careful to avoid ambiguity when using the conjunction if. See this usage note on using if “to introduce a clause indicating uncertainty after a verb such as ask, doubt, know, learn, or see…”

*My purpose was not to be a smart alec or to befuddle the cashier. It was merely to demonstrate that the sign is ambiguous: easily misunderstood. Remember, when you strive to write clearly, your goal is not only to help your readers understand you with little effort, but also to prevent them from misunderstanding you. You, as the writer, are responsible for identifying and removing ambiguities.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A fine example of conciseness

Here’s an example of conciseness, from the man (photo) who probably holds the all-time record for the number of movies he appeared in.

When people see his face in an old movie or TV rerun, they usually say things like, “Look who it is,” or “Oh, him,” or “There’s what’s-his-name again.”

His name is Charles Lane. He died in 2007 at the age of 102, after appearing in about 800 movies and TV programs.

This is a three-minute video in which Mr. Lane receives an acting award at the age of 100. His acceptance speech – a single sentence consisting of six words – clearly and powerfully captures the spirit of his career. A better example of conciseness would be hard to find.

The Takeaway: When you think and write clearly, you can make a point with very few words. You automatically improve your conciseness.