During a drive yesterday, I noticed again two ways that, in casual contexts, people are careless about their communication. For the first time, however, I realized that unfortunately, there’s a close analogy between the way many amateur writers present information and the way some well-meaning professionals (or other serious writers) do it.
First, I noticed handwritten signs posted along roadsides: advertisements for yard sales and the like. You’ve likely noticed too how poorly many of these signs are executed: The sign maker begins to scrawl some information and runs out of space, compressing a phone number or other key information so that it is barely legible.
Or perhaps the penmanship is poor, and the details are illegible. Or perhaps the print is too small or too wordy (or both) to be read by someone driving by at thirty or forty or fifty miles an hour — or, worse, the message is styled in cursive writing. Occasionally, a sign exhibits a combination of some or all of these problems.
Second, I passed between two small groups of people wielding signs at the crossroads of a small town. There were about a dozen protestors altogether, and though I had slowed to twenty miles per hour to negotiate the narrow road, I couldn’t focus on more than a couple of words on two or three signs before I had passed them.
My passenger, who was at more leisure to read the messages, learned little more than I had: The people were on strike, but where they were employed and what they were striking for remained a mystery even though each of us had a few seconds to scan the signs, because, again, the print was sloppily written or too small or both, and the message was too wordy for motorists to take in during the brief opportunity.
Unfortunately, handwritten signs aren’t the only form of communication in which communication fails because of poor planning and execution. We’ve all seen professionally prepared billboards with print too small to read, newspaper and magazine advertisements dense with tightly packed wording, and websites and blogs with poor design.
The takeaway is the same, whether you’re selling knickknacks at a garage sale or widgets on a website: Don’t make your readers work hard to acquire your message. Produce the content carefully:
- Think about how readers will engage with the content — at work, at home, on public transportation, in a passing vehicle? — and design it accordingly.
- Plan your approach, trying several layouts and deciding which one works best for the purpose.
- Prioritize the information: What do you want readers to see first, second, third, and so on?
- Write the message, adapting the tone and the appearance to the readers’ circumstances and, if space is limited, trimming the content to the essentials.
- Ask for critiques, and return to the product later with a fresh set of eyes, then revise according to others’ suggestions and your own realizations.