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Beyond “Out of Order”

I just returned from a perfect weeklong vacation in Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Virginia. Most of the time I toured the sights with my family. And because I live and breathe business communication, I paid attention to signs and how well they communicate. Here’s the story of one sign.

In our hotel in Williamsburg, I left our room, ice bucket in hand, in search of the ice machine. I found the machine in a little room a good distance down the hall. However, the machine had a sign hanging over the precise place I expected to set the bucket. The sign said:

Out of Order

That is all the sign said.

But I wanted more from that sign. In a sprawling, unfamiliar hotel, I needed something beyond “Out of Order.” Can you guess what I needed?

If the writer of the sign had anticipated my needs, the sign would have included an additional note:

Out of Order. You can find another ice machine here: _________. [The blank would have been filled in with a location.]

Because of the hotel’s size and complexity, I had no idea where to find a working ice machine. I continued down the long, winding corridor, thinking that another ice machine must be available on our floor of the hotel. I had no luck. Then I took the stairs one flight up, searched that floor, and eventually succeeded in filling my ice bucket.

Much of business writing involves telling our readers–customers, citizens, users, employees, etc.–that something is out of order. But “Out of Order” is not enough. Think about the other questions your reader may need answered:

–Why is _____ out of order?
–When will it be fixed?
–What are my alternatives until the situation is resolved?
–Was this service outage expected?
–Are other outages anticipated?
–What will you do to make up for this inconvenience?

Different questions suit different situations, of course. Only “What are my alternatives?” fits my quest for an ice machine.

When I was ready for a swim, I had a different question: Where is the pool? Unfortunately, the hotel’s 20-page guide described the pool, its hours of operation, and its rules but never once mentioned the pool’s location. I could have called the Front Desk to ask, but instead I again walked the hallway and asked people I spotted in wet bathing suits. They answered my question quickly and easily.

My advice: In any business communication, think about your reader’s likely questions. Then answer those questions. “Out of Order” is not enough.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Beyond “Out of Order””

  • Great post, Lynn. This advice is good for anyone involved in communications. It all comes back to understanding your audience, anticipating their needs, and making it as easy as possible for them to understand your intended message.

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