As I’m on holidays this week, here’s an anecdote about learning a clear communication lesson ‘in vivo’ during a summer road trip in ’06
Often as a plain language writer/editor, I have paused during editing to wonder if the audience for something I was writing would get the same meaning from something I was writing, as I had intended while writing it. As much as I knew I was choosing words or concepts that were simple at face value, I could not truly know what meaning someone was gathering without being in their brain as they read it.
That is why field tests, focus groups and usability or user acceptance tests are often built into a project to develop any kind of info that is destined for the public – to ensure that the meaning we are trying to transmit is the same as, or at least similar to, the meaning the reader gets. These testing modes aim to rule out any specific messages that readers get that we were not in fact trying to send.
It is often only through finding out how badly you can misunderstand something or give the wrong impression, that we learn what the clearer option might be.
Witness my example…
A few summers ago I, my husband and then-one-and-a-half-year-old daughter vacationed in Nova Scotia, with the plan to rent a car so that we might make the rounds of my aunts, grandmother and cousins who had yet to meet our new daughter.
One of these trips involved driving about three hours south of Wolfville — my cousin’s, and then home base — to see my aunt and uncle in Meteghan, which is a few hours’ drive south. My cousin had kindly left us written, numbered directions to her parents’ place.
A neat and articulate writing hand, has my cousin – even when hastily scrawling notes first thing that morning. So giving a quick scan while prepping our still-nursing bairn for the drive, I think, “No prob. We might even make it in LESS then three hours!”
Famous last words…
Our daughter is NOT having the long Family Car Trip thing at all, so many are the stops to top her up with some “comfort nursing” along the way.
Almost four hours later, we know we’re close. And after four hours, we also know we are crrrranky! So it’s at this point that I yank the directions out again, counting down to the last few steps that I assume will take just moments more.
And it’s at this point that I realize that I’m unsure of few very important details. Turns out, my cousin has described their house by colour — not by number! So number one, I realize I am now looking for “a brown house”. Oh dear.
Ok, I think, this is a tiny town, how hard can it be? I just have to look for the Frenchy’s (a popular Maritime chain of second-hand clothing stores). And, Tammi’s also kindly added that if I get to the NSLC, we’ve gone too far. Great. There’s the Frenchy’s up ahead, and we’ll just have to look for brown houses, and stop and turn around if we get to the Nova Scotia Lion’s Club.
(At this point, anyone from Nova Scotia might be giggling already. But let’s not spoil it, okay?)
The last leg is often the toughest
So we drive and drive along the main drag, seeing a couple shops, a liquor store, and several brown houses, including one gorgeous-looking historic home with a little plaque inscribed “Thibodeau.” “Wow, what if they lived in that one!?” But no, it says Thibodeau and their name is Saunders. And I haven’t yet hit the Lion’s Club.
Then, near where the main street ends, there is another Frenchy’s store! Is THIS the Frenchy’s we are supposed to pass, or is it the previous one? It isn’t making any sense. We had driven to the outskirts and I knew they were supposed to live closer to where my uncle worked, at Therriault shipyard. Weird.
So we turn back, by this time our patience waning and our daughter’s non-existent. This is when I realize that I have written every phone number on the sheet of paper with the directions EXCEPT that of my aunt and uncle. Theirs I have likely written on something that still sits four hours’ drive away, back at my cousin’s. And my cousin isn’t answering at either of the numbers I DO have written down.
But wait: there’s a sign at the next intersection: “Nova Scotia Lion’s Club headquarters 1/4 km”. Yeehaaa — the town rejoiceth (I think our daughter even stopped shrieking for a millisecond!
But why does the sign direct me to turn? That makes no sense since they’re supposed to live along the main drag. OK, at this point, we’re thinking we should just turn around, go back as far as that liquor store, and hightail our way back to our cousin’s before dark.
Finally, in an uncharacteristic feat of frustration, my husband stops at a store, gets out of the car, and goes in to ask for directions. As it turns out, my uncle is well-known in the town, and with my Aunt was actually awaiting on us in that lovely, Victorian (and brown) house with the Thibodeau sign on it. Evidently, the house is historic and Thibodeau is the original owner’s name.
When you assume, you make an S out of U,M,E
As this story illustrates, communication is rife with assumptions about what others understand, and what final action they’ll take when they receive our message. And it was no less true here, even though we both speak the same language, live in the same country, and have similar backgrounds (except the provinces we’d grown up in).
My cousin assumed the following:
- That I would know what NSLC stood for (and how could she have pondered the possibility of my thinking it stood for Lion’s Club—and that there’d actually also BE a Lion’s Club nearby?)
- That I would be able to find the house without looking for a number, based on colour and details about landmarks – and the fact that it’s a very small place.
- That I wouldn’t have reached the other Frenchy’s store. She likely figured I would not get that far, having already turned around back at the NSLC.
None of these is really her fault, since they touch on a different level of thinking that most of us don’t use while writing directions – we’re not all trained technical writers, after all! Since we usually first base what we write and understand on what we know, she couldn’t possibly have counted on the assumptions I was making as I read her instructions. I assumed that:
- ‘LC’ stood for Lion’s Club. It actually denotes that liquor store we’d passed by (i.e., Nova Scotia Liquor Commission).
- There’d be a house number.
- There was only one Frenchy’s to pass by.
- A house marked with a name other than theirs must not be the one they lived in (and again, my cousin assumed that this wouldn’t confuse me).
- I’d encounter nothing unusual about the directions, so waited ‘til we were on the road to read the directions all the way through.
And as this story illustrates, it is those assumptions that can trap us as writers into thinking that the recipients of our information will understand it. But just because it’s so simple and obvious to us, doesn’t mean it will be when it meets with another person’s brain and experience.
It’s also why creators of information benefit from testing that info out on samples of the people who will need to act on it.
(composed 80% on my BlackBerry)