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.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.