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When Sorry Isn’t the Important Word

The other day I wanted to buy salmon at my local market. When I looked at the fish counter covered with ice and various fish, I did not see any salmon, so I asked the person behind the counter if he had any for sale. He looked at me, then pointed down into the counter. I realized I had not noticed a sign.

The sign said:


We are out of salmon.

I am not surprised I missed the sign when I was looking for salmon. After all, the sign emphasized SORRY rather than SALMON. Salmon was the final word, something I would not have seen as my eyes flitted around the icy counter. 

The SORRY sign reminded me of the importance of highlighting what your audience needs in business communication. For example, if you are writing to announce a picnic, you need to highlight the words Picnic, Date, Time, Place, Rain Date (if you live in Seattle or other rainy places), RSVP, and other information your reader will scan for to make plans to be at the event. If you are reminding people about an upcoming webinar, you may need to highlight the word Online, especially if your audience usually attends classes in person.

People do not read every word. They scan email, text messages, web pages, memos, letters, proposals–even signs at the market. Don't give them a big SORRY. Give them what they need. Format your messages to emphasize what they seek.

Have you been able to find what you need in written pieces?  I welcome your comments.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

13 comments on “When Sorry Isn’t the Important Word”

  • Oh how true this is! In the UK we have started to get digital message signs on the motorways which give information about traffic issues. They have to repeat the info because of the order of the text, as you state Lynn the important is often last and thus missed. As always excellent advice from real situations.

  • Tim, thanks for dropping by and commenting. I enjoy your continued emphasis on graphics. Yet I am not sure how a graphic might have helped me when I was seeking the sold-out salmon.


  • Hi, Tim. Yes, maybe the word “salmon” with an X or a line through it. I don’t think I would recognize a picture of a salmon with an X through it.

    Yet a crossed-out salmon (either verbal or visual) might conjure up the wrong idea–have salmon been banned?

    SALMON SOLD OUT might work best.


  • hi Lynn , is so true that we never read carefully and only catch or see what we want and not what we need to know.
    Which means that we have to be careful when it comes to read any kind of written piece.

  • Hi Lynn. I agree. Maybe a better approach would have been to create a sign that said “We’re out of salmon, but our fresh halibut is on special and it’s FANTASTIC!”

  • Instead of “SORRY” which implies that the store is at fault. I like your idea, Lynn, on “Salmon Sold Out.”

    In a visual/IA context; Use the “Salmon” label that is used regularly. This is what shoppers look for 2nd anyway (first being the bright-color salmon itself). Append to the label a contrasting “Sold Out” label. Use a warm color to contrast the cool, icy display. This implies to the customer: This is a product that sells well. “You” JUST missed out. Don’t worry though, this is only temporary – come back (to the store) in a day or two. It turns a negative into two positives and motivation to come back sooner than usual.

  • I get your point.. That’s why experts say communication is important. As you said they could have highlighted salmon also, must have made great sense..

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