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Are your communications causing furrowed brows?

Are your communications causing furrowed brows?

By Nancy Steelberg

What qualifies as “good communications?” If an ad/brochure/video makes you laugh, is it good? Is it good if it spurs you to act or makes you reconsider a strong opinion? What if you were a sign writer? How would you craft a sign that needs to contain a lot of information in a small space? Even the most accurate writers with the best intentions can be challenged by effective word choice.

Last week, our local Washington Post traffic reporter (the fittingly named “Dr. Gridlock”) published a story about bus rider’s Kathryn Catania reaction as she looked up at a Metrobus sign at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW outside the National Gallery of Art. She didn’t quite get it.

Ms. Catania commented “I thought to myself, ‘What does alight mean?’”

She said she recalled using it in a college poetry class, “usually in connection with birds landing on something.” (Here’s the actual definition of alight.)

We often laugh at the funny signs we see (they frequently make up a good deal of my Facebook updates). Indeed, a Metro spokesperson defended the sign, reporting that having a larger font size is part of Metro’s new sign standard that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As professional communicators, it’s important to always err on the side of clarity. At the same time, it’s certainly critical to produce materials that meet all the requirements of the ADA and are Section 508 compliant. (These regulations require that all materials produced by the government be understandable by the visually and hearing-impaired.) But the two goals are not mutually exclusive.

If we want to tell people NOT get on a certain bus, it might be better to say “exit only,” which would probably not require getting out a smart phone to access a dictionary. In this case, my guess is that Metro could have fixed this miscommunication with a simple external review – something ENC helps organizations do all the time.

Let’s all commit to re-reading critical communications with our audience in mind – emails, marketing materials, web sites, and yes, even our texts. And if you don’t have the time, or just want a different set of eyes, call us. Nobody wants to see their work highlighted in a Washington Post story quite like this.

Image courtesy Flickr user jwyg

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