Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What does your written message say to your audience?

I'm traveling for work this week, bouncing from hotel to hotel. The places I'm staying at are pretty middle-of-the-road: not fancy, but not too bad, either. As a result, my expectations are modest: I'm looking for a quiet place, a wireless connection, and a reasonable amount of cleanliness and comfort. The hotel I stayed at last night, located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, did pretty well on most counts, but there's one place where a little change would have gone a long way toward making me feel more welcome. It's a small thing, but reflective of a common mistake that businesses make when communicating with their customers.

On the top of the TV, there was a laminated TV station listing, along with two notes:

Channel line up subject to change without notice
That's it. No "thank you for staying with us"; no "please call the front desk with any questions." Just one big, capitalized "NOT" followed by a cold, hard "without notice." They're basically taking something most guests probably have no interest in--pay-per-view movies--and calling attention to its absence, turning it from something people don't want into something they feel like they're missing out on.

When I saw this, I immediately thought of
a Seth Godin post from January that discussed a sign in a florist's shop with similarly unwelcoming language. Godin said this about word choice:
If it's in print, it matters even more. Things in print have a tone and a finality that add an impact that you need to care about.

So, after the lawyers are done, let the marketers make sure it sounds like you. Your signs, your contacts, your fine print... your words don't just sit there, they shout.

Stuff like this is easy to avoid if you remember the true function of the written word. Whether it's an advertisement, a sign, or a note left on the TV, your written message to your audience acts as your surrogate. It's there when you can't be there. So why write in a language you'd never use when speaking face-to-face?

The problem is that we often ask too much of the written word, hoping it will replace conversations instead of starting new, better ones. We use language designed to shut down conflict instead of inviting feedback.

Once you realize that your words should be consistent with the larger conversation you want to have with your audience, it's easy to fix language that needs improvement. The hotel I stayed at, for example, has several options for editing its message, depending on what kind of conversation they hope to engender. They could:

  • Be more courteous: This one's simple. Instead of accentuating the negative by screaming "PAY-PER-VIEW IS NOT AVAILABLE," why not say "We apologize, but pay-per-view is not available"?
  • Explain: Is there a reason why "PAY-PER-VIEW IS NOT AVAILABLE"? If you can offer a quick explanation, do so. Maybe "We're sorry, but in order to keep rates low our channel selection is limited to basic cable." This isn't perfect, but at least it reminds the customer that they're getting a lower price by sacrificing a luxury. Instead, in not acknowledging the reason why pay-per-view isn't available, they're leaving the impression that they're just choosing to make it unavailable.
  • Offer an alternative: Could the hotel make a DVD player available in each room, or make portable players and movies available for checkout at the front desk? How about passes to a local movie theatre for those who really want to see a movie? Even though those solutions are a little inconvenient for their customer, it's better than offering no alternative.
  • Add by subtracting: Why is the second phrase, "Channel line up subject to change without notice," even necessary? Why not delete it altogether?
  • Stop talking like a lawyer. I have to agree with Godin on this one. "Channel line up subject to change without notice"? Really? Are they afraid someone is going to sue them for breach of contract or emotional distress?
  • Fix the problem. Instead of showcasing the fact that you're unwilling or unable to update the list of TV stations, why not just commit to changing it when needed?
  • Change the conversation. People who stay in hotels usually aren't in town for the hotel stay itself (especially when it's a modest hotel). Why not acknowledge that--and offer a warm welcome at the same time? "Pay per view isn't available at our hotel, because we encourage you to spend time at all of our great restaurants, shops, and attractions. Please ask the front desk for a visitor's guide, and enjoy your stay."
All things considered, minor issues like this aren't deal breakers--but only because the bar is set so low. The right language, on the other hand, can make you stand out and make enough of a difference to make you a preferred choice. Regardless of what business you're in, it's important that your surrogate voice be consistent with the voice you use when you're face-to-face with your customers. Because if you don't make them feel 100% welcome, someone else will.

Bonus coverage: if you want to read about some REALLY bad hotel stays, check out the 10 Worst Hotel Reviews of All Time (hat tip:

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