Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Striking Construction Workers, or The one rule for getting people to read your stuff

This weekend, when I was driving home from Texas with my wife after doing some software development work with a client, I saw a sign that said "Hit a Construction Worker". It was a Saturday so there were no workers around which, I thought, was going to make it that little bit more difficult for me to actually run over a construction worker. Then I read further down the sign where it told me that I would incur a $15,000 fine if I actually did hit a construction worker. I was some disappointed.

My intent is not to complain about the sign's ambiguous heading because there's a more important point here: The author of this sign wrote from the point of view of the author's client (what we would call the Ministry of Transportation up here in Canada): what was important to the client went first--"Don't Hit Our People." Had the author written from the audience's point of view (i.e. my point of view) the sign would have had "$15,000 Fine" as it's title--then it would have gone on to tell me how to avoid incurring the fine. I'm really not interested in hitting (or not hitting) construction workers--I am keenly interested in not incurring a $15,000 fine.

Obviously, I read the whole sign so I'm probably just quibbling. But it was a reminder of the One Big Rule in technical writing (as I've said before): if you want people to read your stuff, make sure that you're writing about what's important to those people (and not what's important to you).

Reading or read:

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