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When Writers Hide Details in Plain Sight

Have you ever read something once, maybe twice, only to learn later that the detail you needed was hiding in plain sight? 

I recently submitted travel reimbursement forms for an association's national conference. I included all my usual travel expenses: airfare, taxi to the conference and back to the airport, and three meals on the day I presented my session. (The association had already paid for my hotel.) 

I received this email in reply:

Good evening!

I just finished processing your reimbursement request and wanted to inform you that, although you did request reimbursement for ground transportation (parking, shuttle, cab, mileage, etc.), I’m afraid it will not be reimbursed. It is stated in your contract as noted below (please see the last bullet), and our Board did make the decision to not reimburse these costs as a cost-saving measure for the Association. I do sincerely apologize for any inconvenience. I know that this is a new process this year, and we all appreciate your understanding.  

I usually read the fine print carefully. How had I missed the point that my taxis would not be covered?

Easily! Notice where the information appears: 

Airfare, Baggage, Fees: We have agreed to provide round-trip coach airfare and reimbursement of any fees associated with checking one piece of luggage. Additional guest tickets or checked bags beyond the first are not included. 

  • You are responsible for making your own arrangements, which must be booked no less than 21 days before the speaking engagement. 
  • If the airfare is booked in less than 21 days, reimbursement will be limited to the cost of the ticket up to $500, unless an exception is submitted in writing/electronically, and pre-approved by your association contact.
  • The association does not reimburse travel agent booking fees associated with ticket changes or any local/ground transportation.

The information I needed appears at the end of a bullet point about travel agent booking fees–not about local transportation.

It is buried in a section with the heading "Airfare, Baggage, Fees"–not "Items Not Covered This Year." 

Because this is the first year the association has not covered local transportation for its speakers, the exception should stand out–not hide out. 

I received a group email rather than the usual individual messages I get from the association, so I can tell they had to send this message to many other speakers. I was not alone in missing the essential information tacked onto "Airfare, Baggage, Fees." 

I have presented at this association's conferences many times, and this email does not change my positive feelings about the group. But it does make me question their intention in burying the bad news. After all, their cost-saving measure is my cost-paying measure. Why not make the information plain? That way, when I took the taxis, I would know that I was paying for them. 

Has information hidden in plain sight surprised you? My elusive information cost me only $50. Did yours cost more?

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.

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