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Business Writing – Getting Your Message Across

Take a look at this sign, which I recently saw on a wall in Wimbledon, South West London.

Ineffective signage

Do you know what it’s trying to do?  Do you think it works as well as it could do?  The surrounding pavement was littered with cigarette butts, which suggests that the sign isn’t terribly effective.

But leaving aside the antisocial habits of South West Londoners, I think that this notice could be redrafted to help get its message across more effectively.  So I thought I’d analyse it using tried and tested Working Voices methods.  Yes, it’s only a sign on a suburban London street, but someone went to the trouble of printing this notice out, and then laminating it, so they clearly think it’s important.

All of our writing courses are based around simple, straightforward techniques our clients can use to assess the effectiveness of something they’ve written.  We talk about ‘Triple A’: analysing what you’ve written to see if its AIM is clear; if it speaks to its intended AUDIENCE; and if the APPROACH you’ve taken to is the most appropriate one.  In SCREEN STYLE we talk about constructing and writing messages in a way that should appeal to busy audiences: shortening sentences and paragraphs, using the active voice, and using plain language.  We also remind our clients of the vital importance of PROOFREADING anything they send out, and checking for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

So is this sign’s aim clear?  Well, you could argue that it gets straight to the point (in a polite way: that initial ‘please’ is fine) and that we all know what it’s trying to do.  Does it really speak to its intended audience though?  We advise our trainees to try and address people – especially if they want to be direct and persuasive – with the personal pronoun ‘you’. So we could redraft the notice as follows:

Please do not dispose of your cigarette ends in this area.

Your failure to adhere to this, may lead to smoking being prohibited in this area.

Slightly better, but still not as effective as it could be.

There’s a bit of repetition in the second line: the phrase ‘in this area’ recurs.  Repetition can work – using recurring key words to emphasise important ideas is a popular rhetorical technique, of course – but it’s not necessary in this example.  So what about:

Please do not dispose of your cigarette ends in this area.

Your failure to adhere to this, may lead to smoking being prohibited here.

It’s slightly shorter now, but still a little too wordy.  And some of the words the writer has chosen are a bit too long.  The lure of long words and formal language is very powerful, especially when we’re trying to sound ‘official’ and important.  But this sign is meant to deliver its message as quickly and directly as possible.  Plainer language would help, perhaps.  ‘Dispose’, ‘failure to adhere’, ‘prohibited’: there are more straightforward and direct alternatives.  What about:

Please do not drop your cigarette ends in this area.

Your not doing this, may lead to smoking being banned here.

But it still doesn’t feel direct enough. That ‘may lead’ sounds like a fainter possibility than it should.  The original ‘failure to adhere’, and the alternative ‘your not doing this’ don’t sound enough like instructions.  ‘Smoking being prohibited (or banned) here’ is a good example of the use of a passive verb, in this case omitting the ‘doer(s)’: the person (or people) who are going to prohibit smoking if people don’t stop dropping cigarette butts.  So let’s try the active:

Please do not drop your cigarette ends in this area.

If you don’t, we may ban smoking here.

Or even:

Please do not drop your cigarette ends in this area.

If you don’t, we’ll ban smoking here.

Commands often work better if you make them positive rather than negative: rewording your text so that it’s no longer a matter of ‘not doing’ something, but doing something active instead.  So we could try:

Please stop dropping your cigarette ends in this area.

If you don’t, we’ll ban smoking here.

And we could cut the word count with

Please stop dropping your cigarette ends in this area,

or we’ll ban smoking here.

And if they’d done the sensible thing and invested in a bin, and wanted to emphasise the smokers and their responsibilities throughout:

Please put your cigarette ends in the bin, or you won’t be allowed to smoke here anymore.

And proofreading?  Well, if we go back to the original for a moment, and check out the punctuation.

Please do not dispose of cigarette ends in this area.

Failure to adhere to this, may lead to smoking being prohibited in this area.

The full stops are fine, but the comma between ‘this’ and ‘may’ in the second sentence doesn’t need to be there.  We use commas to list things, to join two chunks of sentence together, to indicate a gap in the sentence or (in pairs) to bracket part of a sentence.  None of those four things is going on in the second sentence, and so there’s no need for a comma.

Intrigued?  Check out our business writing courses at workingvoices.wpengine.com for more details!

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