Don’t Blame Your Readers for Not Understanding

Michele Cronen, Managing Associate Editor

This blog originally appeared on The Center for Plain Language’s website on February 8, 2017. http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about/blog/. We’re running it here in honor of Health Literacy Month.

Another holiday season has passed, along with the requisite schmoozing at parties. I tend to be more of a listener than a talker. But if I’m asked, I do admit that I’m an editor and a proponent of plain language. In response, I often hear stories like these:

  • “People just don’t read anymore! Our office has very clear signs to tell people how to check in for their appointments, but no one does it right!”
  • “This is the time of year when we send out tax letters. Do people read them? Of course not! They call our office instead. All the information is in the letters, if they’d just take the time to look at them.”

I don’t have the gift of gab, but in these cases, I have to speak up. If most of the people you’re trying to communicate with aren’t responding in the way you intended, there’s a good chance that the problem is YOU.

Take another look. Just how clear are those signs and letters you’ve produced? Are they full of jargon and passive voice? Is the most important message buried within paragraphs of legalese? Have you made it clear what you want your readers to DO with the information?

Those people who annoy you with their failure to follow your written instructions have just done you a huge favor. That’s user testing, and you didn’t have to pay a research firm to gather it. Your users are telling you that they don’t understand your message.

So instead of getting frustrated, get busy! Look at your message with fresh eyes. Imagine you’re one of those people who didn’t follow instructions or who called for more information. Read the message from their point of view, and ask yourself:

  • What does this mean to me?
  • Why should I care?
  • What do they want me to do about it?

Your message should clearly answer those questions for your readers.

So if it’s a tax letter, the letter should prominently and clearly tell readers:

  • How much of this tax they owe.
  • What will happen if they don’t pay it. (What’s the penalty?)
  • How and when they need to pay.

If it’s a sign at a doctor’s office instructing people to check in, it should tell them:

  • You need to check in for your appointment.
  • If you don’t check in, you’ll sit in the waiting room for hours because we won’t know you’re here.
  • Here’s how and where to check in.

If you follow that advice—and keep your message short and to the point—I’ll bet you’ll see a welcome improvement in how people respond. Then you can spend your time at holiday parties talking about something fun, like “Have you seen the latest Star Wars movie?”

About the Author: Michele Cronen is the Managing Associate Editor at Healthwise, a nonprofit company that helps people make better health decisions. She has not yet seen the latest Star Wars movie.