I hope you find my writing and business tips and observations useful. My business and blog are dedicated to helping businesses communicate clearly and reach their potential. Read, subscribe to my newsletter, enjoy!Tash

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Sticking to instructions

Trying something new is always challenging and a bit nerve wrecking.

So it’s easy to rely on sources of information to help the process.

Making tile adhesive

We are doing up our bathroom so needed adhesive to attach the tiles to the bathroom walls. After research, we decided to use adhesive powder rather than a pre-mixed adhesive.

To make the adhesive, it is a simple matter of mixing some of the powder with water. Of course, how much of each is somewhat important!

The packet included instructions for making the adhesive to the correct consistency. However, the instructions were to mix 20 kg with 6 litres of water.

label of tile adhesive packet

Instructions on the tile adhesive powder bag.

Trying to convert those instructions into mixing usable quantities was difficult – giving a weight rather than volume of the powder was particularly difficult. Meaning our first attempt was too wet and wasn’t going to hold the tiles well enough.

Clarity in instructions

We figured out a good consistency for the adhesive, eventually, and now have some lovely tiles stuck to our walls!

But learning from others’ mistakes, here are my tips for making instructions for useful:

  1. Remember who the instructions are for and make them suit. That is, don’t assume the person reading the instructions knows as much about your product as you do. If you are only writing for experienced people (in our case, professional tilers), you may be able to give less information than if writing for inexperienced users (such as DIY tilers).
    If you have more than one audience, ensure the instructions are simple enough for the less experienced group.
  2. Aim for clarity so people understand how to use your instructions. You can do this through
    1. avoid jargon
    2. do multiple small steps instead of a few large steps
    3. use short sentences
    4. use simple language and sentence structure
  3. if the product has different uses, explain how instructions vary between those uses. For example, if floor and wall tiles need adhesive with different consistencies, say something like “Add 6 litres of water for floor tiling and 5 litres for wall tiling” rather than “depending on the consistency of the mix required”.
  4. Where measurements may vary, give a ratio or multiple examples. I’ll expand on that in my next post 🙂
  5. Put instructions where they are easily seen – not just so they can be found but so that they are easy to refer to whilst using them. Again, with the tile adhesive packet, the mixing instructions were in amongst paragraphs of text.

What interesting experiences have you had with hard to understand instructions?




Clear communications can impact lives

Earlier in the week, I posted about aviation communications needing to be clear, especially in relation to homonyms such as defined via my Monday Meanings.

Further reading of the Flight Safety Australia article discusses other examples of technical conversations needing clarity including the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in February 2009.

Clear fire warnings

If you were in a fire affected (or threatened) area, would you want to hear

“A major wind event has occurred near anytown and there is fire activity with the potential to impact homes in the sometown area”

or would you prefer to be told

“Strong winds are pushing uncontrollable fires towards anytown and sometown. These areas are dangerous and we advice you get out now”

When lives are at stake, no one has time to think about the meaning of a message – they need to hear it and act accordingly straight away.

Concrete language

Clarity comes from using language easily understood and with no room for ambiguity.

Compare ‘potential to impact’ with ‘deadly, unpredictable’, and ‘messaging people in the area’ with ‘tell locals to …’

Concrete language has a specific meaning that is easily understood.

Concrete terms refer to things we can physically connect with and that stay fairly constant over time (for example pen is a concrete term as we know what it means and it hasn’t changed – there are different colours and types, but if I ask for a pen you could pass me one. If I asked for a writing tool, you would probably have to think about what I meant before passing something to me; and if I asked for a writing idea you couldn’t pass me anything!)

Instructions, procedures and critical information is more effective when written with concrete terms.

concrete language quote from Dale Carnegie

Avoid managerial language

In the words of Don Watson, “telling people requires language whose meaning is plain and simple. Managerial language is never this.”

Personally, I find ‘managerial language’ pompous a lot of the time and it makes me suspicious – why are you writing this so obscurely instead of saying it simply? Are you trying to trick me or hide something in the complexity?

A term like ‘populating the document’* is ridiculous! I interpret it as ‘filling the space’ or ‘adding fluff’ to make the document longer – remember those school essays with a minimum word count? it does nothing to promote your message and wastes everyone’s time so where’s the point?


* ‘populating the document’ was apparently used in a Black Saturday hearing by someone who had been ‘value adding’, ‘messaging’ and ‘communicating the likely impact’ to the people of Victoria.

Poor communications a laughing matter?

Last night, I went to the launch of the Whitehorse Business Week at Headland and was entertained by guest speaker Russell Gilbert.

Although I have seen Russell many times on TV shows and the like, I hadn’t seen a full routine from him before. I really enjoyed it – he was funny and had us all laughing, but also showed he can do magic and sing.

Two of his jokes in particular were based on communications so I thought I’d share them today.

Multiple meanings

wet floor warning signHave you seen one of those yellow signs warning of ‘wet floor’?

Russell apparently cannot see one of those signs without looking for a bucket of water (ok, I’m using a more appropriate source of liquid!) so he can wet the floor.

In this case, the signs are not incorrect but Russell spotted that ‘wet’ can be an adjective (as intended on these signs) or a verb (as the instruction Russell assumed).

For any important message, it is worth checking for alternative versions of a word to be sure you aren’t saying something you really don’t want to say!

Clarity through order

bottle of cleaning liquidRussell also spoke about cleaning products, which may not seem very funny!

Many cleaning products include the sentence ‘cleans and kills germs’ but Russell asked why would you bother cleaning the germs before killing them?

Do the germs say ‘I’m dying but I’ve never looked so clean, it’s great!’?

Ok, we all know they mean ‘cleans a surface and kills germs on that surface’. And it’s good they’ve gone for a shorter version to give their message clarity.

They could make their message much clearer simply by changing the order of that sentence – ‘kills germs and cleans’ is much clearer and doesn’t give comedians an opportunity to pick on it :).

However, kill germs and cleans sounds wrong because we are so used to the other order – would you think that’s a negative or a positive for changing the order if you were producing a new cleaning label?

Do marketers want the emphasis on cleaning or killing germs? Would that be a factor in which order those words are placed?

Would your label aim for clarity or marketing emphasis or customer familiarity?


* images courtesy of 123rf and Tash Hughes 

Define ‘you’ for clarity

A clear message will get the best results.

An unclear message will literally cloud the waters, giving you confused, low quality or reduced quantity in results. For example, an unclear question will get meaningless answers and unclear shopping cart instructions will get fewer sales.

The word ‘you’ can be used to add clarity or obscure it.

When writing ‘you’, is it specific to the reader, a general term or someone associated with the reader? That needs to be clear, without thought, for the word to work as part of your message.

I just did a  quick survey which was aimed at parents and asked “How often do you make school lunches at home?” then “How often do your children get canteen lunches?”

In  my case, both answers were ‘never’ which may give the impression my kids starve! The reality is that I do not make their school lunches – they make their own.

Was the question specifically after how many lunches parents make or how many lunches are made at home? If the question was about home-made vs canteen, it was worded poorly and would have been better as “How often do your children take a home-made lunch to school?”

Have you seen other examples where ‘you’ is potentially misleading or confusing the message?

Writing contracts

I’ve been asked recently about grammar and proper English for ‘important documents’ such as a contract.

Writing a contract has so much mystique and importance associated with it that many people find the thought of a contract to be intimidating. And to be honest, contracts written in legalese help that perception.

However, a contract is simply an agreement between two (or more) parties.

And a well written contract is simply communicating the details of an agreement.

A contract will outline the details of the arrangement so some contracts are much longer than others and some need much more attention to finer details such as provided by a lawyer. But the bottom line is that it is a business document and needs to communicate a clear message.

Writing contracts

Writing a contract is like any other business writing in that

  1. spelling is important
  2. grammar is important
  3. punctuation is important to ensure the correct meaning is understood
  4. good writing basics are important – for example, a contract needs no more capital letters than any other document
  5. clarity and simplicity make it easier to understand and read
  6. knowing the purpose beforehand makes it easier to write
  7. proof reading – and a second opinion – is critical

Missing out on comments

I just came across a great blog post and wrote a comment in response. Part of the process was answering a security question to avoid spam which is fine.

The questions was “what is one plus three?” It wasn’t a challenge to find the answer but I did wonder if I should write ‘four’ or ‘4’. Given the question used words, I did too.

Unfortunately, the comment form just disappeared with the message “You got the spam message wrong” in its place. Not only was my beautifully crafted response gone forever, I wasn’t given the opportunity to write a replacement comment – and that blog misses out on another comment.

If there is any ambiguity about a compulsory question, there must be a second chance at answering it. Better yet would be clarity about the expected answer – for instance, it could have asked “what is one plus three? (answer in digits)” or “Give the number (in digits) equal to one plus three”.

A simple error yes but the consequences are that they missed getting a comment – How many comments do they miss each week because of this spam question? – and they have lost credibility as a site that values clarity (sorry to say it was a content writing service site, too).

What sort of spam protection do you hate or love?

Managing feedback

When I’m writing for some of my corporate clients, a number of people need to be involved in the document – usually a mix of technical experts and legal advisers, along with a manager or two. If you have ever had to deal with a committee consensus, you’ll know that this process can be frustrating and time-consuming.

The best results arise when everyone has the appropriate input with one or two people having responsibility for the final result – usually the writer and a senior manager.

Here are some of my tips to keep this process under control:

  • have all feedback come into a central place so it can be collated – and if a technical expert can collate it for you, even better!
  • as much as possible, get everyone involved to review the same draft by a specific deadline. This way, you can blend all of the feedback into the document in one go rather than having many drafts and missing details in the confusion. Most stakeholders then do not get another review – legal, management and you get to do final checks.
  • get the document as accurate as possible with one or two client representatives before it goes to the group
  • explain any potential issues before they start the review. For example, I often write ‘refer to page xx’ in a draft document rather than ‘refer to page 10’ to allow for layout changes. I warn clients of this when I give them the draft to save them and me dealing with page numbers unnecessarily
  • understand as much as possible who is who amongst the stakeholders. If Jane and Mary give opposing feedback – which should you rely on as technically correct and which is an opinion?
  • be willing to give way on some points if they aren’t important so that you can stand your ground on points where it is important – remember that the same information can be written in multiple correct ways, and it can be personal choice as to which is ‘better’

As a writer, it is my job to take their technical knowledge, legal requirements and document intentions and provide them with a clear, easy to read document. So sometimes I do exactly as their feedback requests (e.g. changing a measurement from 5mm to 5cm) and at other times I adjust their feedback for clarity.

Use your words wisely!