Our next-door neighbours do all the things you expect of next-door neighbours, living, as they do, next door and in general being neighbourly folk. In a London apartment, this is not something to be taken lightly, and I forgive them their slight penchant for letting their front door close itself - who among us doesn't enjoy the frisson of trying not to spill your tea on the occasion of a surprise bang?
This week, I happened upon one of the couple - let's call him 'Jeff' - puzzling at a new sign at the entrance to our building.
E BIKES & SCOOTERS
PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT
STORING OR CHARGING OF E BIKES AND SCOTTERS IN ANY COMMUNAL SPACE INCLUDING BIKE STOPS IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN
THANK YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING & COMPLIANCE OF THIS SERIOUS SAFETY ISSUE
I asked Jeff what a scotter was.
"I dunno, mate, and if I had one, I'm not sure why it's more of a serious safety issue in a communal space than at home."
"Luckily, you are understanding and compliant," I joked, for I am occasionally jokey.
"Mate," he said (Jeff says 'mate' a lot). "Why are all signs written like this? It makes me want to punch them."
Man-on-sign violence aside, Jeff had a point. These sorts of signs are so often a perfect example of people trying to write in a voice that isn't theirs to an audience that doesn't exist (one that reacts well to such language).
I was told a good decade ago by the comms whizz and former sub-editor Ian Hughes that all communication should be written or spoken as if you're addressing a human being that you like.
And this makes sense. They probably are a human being. And they're probably someone you'd like if you met them. And if they aren’t, then just pretend they are anyway.
Most of the time, when we use a bunch of esoteric words (words such as ‘esoteric’ in fact), it’s to look smart or occasionally to dance around the truth. But audiences won’t think that you’re smart, and they’ll know what the truth is anyway.
So, the best thing to do is ask yourself how you’d say it to a normal human being that you like. And the message quickly changes.
For example, there have been many businesses over the last year that have been forced to make redundancies (the most since 2009, in fact).
This is not "people synergies", and it’s not "rightsizing" or "downsizing"; it’s people’s lives - we should tell them what’s actually happening to the business and their jobs.
Equally, it's not a paradigm shift; it’s a change. You’re not a solutions provider; you do a real thing, and you should say what it is. And please don’t invite anyone to ideate, imagineer or inbox; they’ll probably want to imagineer a thesaurus and throw it at your head.
And they aren’t staff either or employees. Call them colleagues. Or people. Because you like them.
Sometimes non-human language is necessary, but then we may be getting onto the subject of shibboleths, and that’s for another time…
Anywho, I'm off to find somewhere safe and compliant to store my scotter. I’m doing this because I understand. And I’m a human being.
This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn.
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