Stress and a Lesson on Business Writing

I traveled through Midway Airport in Chicago on my trip to my niece’s funeral last week. Already under stress, I experienced a miscommunication that offered a lesson for business writers.

I had reserved a rental car. Having landed at Midway, I walked up to the counter of the rental car company. The woman behind the counter asked, "Are you a club member?" When I said yes, she waved her arm and said, "First door on your left, middle lane."

Following the general direction of her arm, I rolled my suitcase toward the first door on the left, then walked through it. There were no rental cars. There were several lanes of traffic moving to the right.

Then I spotted a sign above an elevator that read "Rental Cars, 1st floor." I decided I must have misheard the woman behind the counter. I believed she must have said "First floor on your left, middle lane." (I know that makes no sense, but I had been on a plane for hours.) So I entered the elevator in search of "1st floor." Unfortunately, there was no button that indicated a "1st floor"–just Ticketing, Mezzanine, and things like that. Where was the first floor? Was I already on it? I pushed a button, the elevator doors opened, and I wasn’t sure whether I was on the same floor of a moment ago or a different one.

I spent another 5 minutes trying to find the rental cars. That’s when I learned that at "First door on your left, middle lane" there were no rental cars. There were shuttle buses that carried passengers to rental cars.

I suppose my mistake was silly. But at the airport I visit most often, in Orlando, Florida, the rental cars are lined up right outside baggage claim–no shuttle bus required.

All I needed was for the person behind the counter to say, "Take the first door on your left. Look for a shuttle bus in the middle lane." I wouldn’t have expected to find rental cars, and I would have climbed quickly and happily onto a bus.

Not just a customer service example, the lesson applies to business writers: Don’t assume readers know everything. Think of them as beginners: new employees, prospective clients, or first-time visitors to your airport. Try to imagine them reading your procedure, proposal, policy, or announcement. Think about what they might not know, and provide it.

I’ve learned my lesson. The next time I visit an airport, I’ll ask: Should I look for a rental car–or a shuttle bus?

Lynn
Syntax Training

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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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.