Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don’t be coy

Don’t be coy; if you want to say something, say it. And include enough detail to satisfy your readers.

Here’s an example of coy writing.


The website of UPS contains a page titled “Photo ID Requirement at Retail Shipping Locations.” The first three paragraphs are:

The safety and security of our customers, business partners, and employees is of utmost concern. Our approach is a multi-layered approach to security, implementing additional security precautions to protect people, shipments, or our facilities.

As a result, UPS is enhancing security measures around shipments that originate at retail shipping locations worldwide.

Effective December 7, 2010, consumers who originate and tender a shipment to any retail shipping location will be required to show a government-issued photo ID as a form of identification. The photo must match the person tendering the shipment.


UPS does not say why it is demanding to see “government-issued photo ID.” In the first paragraph, the company coyly alludes to “safety and security,” with no explanatory detail. In the second paragraph, it makes an illogical transition (“As a result”). And in the third paragraph, it finally gets to the point and reveals (but in coy passive voice) that it is demanding to see “government-issued photo ID.”

Nowhere on the page, which contains 225 words of text, does the company explain what perils (if any) the ID will protect us from, and how the ID will protect us from those perils. Readers have good reason to be skeptical; for example, they remember that the 9-11 hijackers showed “government-issued photo ID.” And they showed it to professional ID-checkers at airports – not counter clerks at UPS Stores.

So the intelligent readers wonder:

Precisely what is UPS trying to protect us from – or pretending to try to protect us from?

The Takeaway: When you are writing for a business or other organization, don’t be coy. Remember that words such as safety, security, quality, service, value, dependability and sustainability mean nothing by themselves. Your readers need to see further detail to understand what you are doing with these words. Give them that detail. If you are demanding something from your customers, tell them precisely why you are demanding it. If you don’t, they may go to your competition. And if the government forced your organization to demand it, just say so. Write like a serious adult, not a coy schoolgirl.

See disclaimer.

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