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Take Time to Think Inside the Box

My daughter enjoyed an attraction called Enchant Christmas, which is currently in Seattle. I thought I’d like to go too, so I checked out the website on my phone.

I was surprised that Enchant was also being offered in Arlington, a city just 47 miles north of Seattle. I scrolled through the website and saw that the Arlington venue was pretty much the same as Seattle’s. Then I let some friends who live north of Seattle know about it, thinking they’d have fun at the Arlington attraction.

Cue my embarrassment: My friend KC said, “I haven’t heard about it. I think maybe it’s in Arlington, Virginia.” We researched further. It turns out it’s in Arlington, Texas. Arlington Enchant

Checking to see whether I had lost my mind, I went back—on my phone—to the website. Not until I had clicked through to buy tickets and chosen the date and time of my visit did the site mention Texas or any other geographical hint to place me in a particular Arlington. Yet 21 cities and towns in the United States go by that name.

Thinking inside the box means thinking from the reader’s viewpoint—from the reader’s box, let’s say—and that includes considering how the reader is accessing your information. On my desktop computer, I see a Texas reference quickly on the Enchant Christmas website. But on my phone, it doesn’t appear.

Thinking inside the box includes answering your reader’s questions, not just sharing the information you want to share. For example, one reader question is “Which Arlington?”

Yesterday’s New York Times travel section featured an article titled “A Wintry Crossroads.” Its pull-quote reads “Georgia has nice slopes, dependable snow and hearty food but only a nascent tourism industry.” Georgia? Dependable snow? Ah, I see. The country—not the state—of Georgia was the subject of the article. But it took some reading to figure that out, unless you read the photo caption first. It began, “The slopes in Gudauri, Georgia.”

How can you think inside the reader’s box? Here are a few ways:

  1. Imagine you are talking with the reader. What would that person ask? Probably things like what, why, where, when, who, etc., but with more detail. For example: What’s this about? Why the change? Where should I park? When does it open? Who is my contact?
  2. After you write a piece, have a sample reader review it, someone who’s not an insider like you. For instance, if you are in Medical Billing, have someone who’s in Safety read your letter. Does that individual understand your terminology and message?
  3. Take time between writing and reviewing your pieces. Reading your work with a fresh eye tomorrow may make it obvious that a piece is confusing or incomplete.

Creators of in-flight magazine advertisements often forget about the reader’s perspective. I see ads for restaurants, hotels, and attractions I’d love to visit, but nowhere on the page does the location appear. This blog post shares my doubts about a resort in Traverse City, MI. I had to review my knowledge of postal abbreviations to recognize whether Traverse City was in Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, or Minnesota.

You may be wondering how much ignorance you need to anticipate. Wouldn’t most readers of The New York Times immediately know the article was about Georgia, the country? (Yes, perhaps.) Doesn’t everyone know that MI is the abbreviation for Michigan? (Definitely not.) Wouldn’t most people assume Arlington is in Texas? (No way.) Talking with your colleagues and members of your reading audience can help you answer those questions.

Enough about using your creativity to think outside the box. Use your logic to think inside the box to meet your reader’s needs.

Have you been frustrated or confused by missing information? Please share your example.

Skill development: If you would like to anticipate and meet your reader’s needs more consistently, take my Business Writing Tune-Up course online.


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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.

9 comments on “Take Time to Think Inside the Box”

  • Hi Virginia,

    Church websites are a wonderful example of a communication medium that leaves out essential information. I can imagine all the First United Methodist churches with no city given on their home pages.

    When I read your comment, I checked the day of the week for January 7–it’s a Monday. Don’t want you to show up on a wrong day!

    Thanks for your great example.


  • Thanks for stopping by, Kelly. I also like the idea of letting time pass when possible. I wrote the blog post just a few hours ago, but I would have added something if I had waited until now to publish it. I have to take my own advice!


  • Stephanie, what an excellent example! I can imagine how frustrating it must be if this happens to you regularly.

    I love your recommended solution: “I wish every race website shared the city, state, date, and time of the race clearly on the front page of their site.” Is there some advisory board for running that could share your suggestion widely? Maybe I can do a second blog post that focuses just on races–that might help.


  • We live in a global society now so a location is extremely important. If you google First United Methodist Church you’ll find lots of choices. The website will not readily show the physical location but instead, all the great things about the church. I like to include is the day along with the date, like Tuesday, January 7. Once, we hosted a Christmas open house on December 15. It was a weekend and most folks showed up on Saturday the 15th but six people came on Sunday thinking the 15th was Sunday.

  • As a runner I often have a similar problem when checking out websites for road races. I run a lot of half marathons, and I also do a lot of traveling, so I am often online searching for races to run outside my local area. But race directors and website creators seem to forget that not everyone interested in running their race is from their area. They often neglect to put the city and/or state of the race on the homepage, and I sometimes have to spend much too long digging through the site to even find out where in the country the race is located!

    Here’s an example I recently ran across—the Walnut Creek Half Marathon. The website is Discovering exactly where in the United States this race can be found takes a reader on a hunt through the entirety of the website. There are many references to specific street names, but no complete addresses, clearly assuming the reader already knows the location of the race. The menu gives the hint that the race is in a city of the same name—Walnut Creek—but not even the page of the site dedicated to that city mentions the name of the state. Nor does the page about the location of packet pickup and registration, or the page about where to park on race day.

    I wish every race website shared the city, state, date, and time of the race clearly on the front page of their site so that readers know those basics before deciding whether to read through for additional details.

  • Related sources of irritation are websites, email signatures and business cards that omit the organisation’s street address. This may keep people from showing up without an appointment, but stating the city (and state or country!) is often a great help to readers. LinkedIn profiles generally show the metropolitan area in which the person is located.

  • Hi George,

    I too have experienced those sources of irritation. Sometimes I will wonder where a potential client lives, but nothing informative appears in the individual’s email signature. Yet knowing whether we can meet in person in the Seattle area or have to communicate online makes a big difference.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • When I write a letter, my instinct is to send it out right away. But its better to put it aside for at least a day and come back to it with fresh eyes.

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