I have been teaching business writing in a variety of places lately–New York, St. Louis, and today Portland, Oregon. In my drive from Seattle to Portland and back, I realized that road signs offer good lessons to business writers.
Below is what I observed about the road signs on I-5, the main highway between Seattle and Portland.
All the signs of the same category are identical in form. For example:
- Signs for rest areas are blue; for state parks, brown; and for roadwork, orange.
- The road exit signs have the exit number at the top, followed by the destination. The signs are green with white lettering.
- When a destination is the next exit, the exit number is not given. The sign simply gives the destination, for example, Ridgefield, with the phrase "Next Exit" underneath it.
Lesson for writers: Keep like things in the same form. For example, render all bullet points in a section as sentences or phrases–not both. Start all action items with a verb. If you capitalize only the first word in one heading, capitalize all similar headings the same way. Rendering the same kinds of information the same way increases your readers' ability to find and use it.
When a list of destinations appears on a sign, the closest destination comes first, as in:
Castle Rock 7
Lesson for writers: The information your readers need first should come at the beginning of your communication. For example, at the beginning of your email, tell readers what you want them to do. That way, they will know how to handle the rest of your message. Save less timely or less important information for the end of your message.
Businesses in the same category appear on the same sign, usually with their company logos. For example:
- One sign lists all the hotels, motels, etc., with the heading Lodging Exit 21.
- Another sign lists all the places to eat, with the heading Food Exit 21. I always check the food signs for a Starbucks logo because I know I will get a familiar drink there.
- Gas (petrol) and tourist activities have their own signs too, just like those above.
Lesson for writers: Group similar information together, keeping in mind how your readers will use it. In your meeting notes, group all the action items. When familiar images will help (like the logos), include them. For instance, include photos with people's bios. For a column or feature in your monthly newsletter, include the same kinds of graphics each month.
As you can see, I enjoyed thinking about what road signs can teach writers. What observations would you add?
My final thought: It's good to be home!