What I Wish I Told The Author Of The Worst Sign I’ve Ever Read

During my time as a shift supervisor at Goodwill,  we had an issue with customers sticking their hands into large hampers filled with glass.

Throughout the day, sales associates would wheel these ride-on lawnmower-sized hampers filled with priced house-goods onto the sales floor and stock the merchandise in the appropriate aisles. Upon seeing these hampers, eager customers would often flock to the sales associates and dig through the items themselves, looking to find the best deals. This was typically not problematic if the hamper contained stuffed animals, wicker baskets or old office supplies. It was an issue, however, when the customers rummaged through the hampers that were weighed down by hundreds of pieces of glassware.

Even if our team did not openly encourage customers to reach into the unsorted piles of vases, mugs, cups, dishes and figurines, our store, according to our safety team leader, would still be held responsible if someone hurt themselves on a shard of broken glass.

One of my supervisor colleagues suggesting addressing this issue by creating warning signs and taping them around the rims of the glass-filled hampers. I supported the idea — a quick sign cautioning the excited, unaware customers would probably help keep them safe.

A few days later, I encountered the new signs attached to a hamper on the sales floor. Much to my surprise, I had to stop and read a paragraph of text.

Printed on a horizontal piece of white computer paper, the sign began with CAUTION!!!!CAUTION!!!CAUTION!!!! and was followed by several wordy sentences explaining why customers should ask a sales associate for help instead of grabbing around the potentially hazardous collection of glassware themselves. This was surrounded by a good amount of caution-related clip art.

Beneath this was the exact same lengthy message (Google) translated into Spanish, printed in smaller, italicized font. It began CUIDADO!!!!CUIDADO!!!CUIDADO!!!!.

I was impressed with my coworker’s attempt at being bilingual — including a Spanish version of the text was pretty considerate given the amount of Spanish-speakers who frequented our store.

I  respected that and only that about this sign.

It was as if my colleague had never seen a sign before. The point of a sign is to convey an important message in a quick, simple manner. Signs are not supposed to explain the reasoning for the message they’re communicating. Stop signs don’t say, “STOP THERE ARE OTHER CARS ON THE ROAD SO WE ASK THAT YOU PLEASE STOP YOUR VEHICLE HERE AS TO PREVENT YOUR CAR FROM HITTING ANOTHER CAR AND POTENTIALLY CAUSING BODILY INJURY TO YOURSELF OR THE OTHER DRIVER” they just say “STOP.” Even if you’re trying to notify someone of danger verbally, you don’t shout, “HELLO MY NAME IS CHRIS I NOTICED THAT THERE IS A FIRE IN THE CORNER OF THE ROOM AND FIRES ARE BAD BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY HOT AND SMOKY SO WE SHOULD PROBABLY MOVE AWAY FROM THIS FIRE,” you shout, “FIRE!!”

Signs exist to save time. They work off of the assumption that readers already have a certain degree of relevant knowledge. People don’t want to, nor should they have to, waste their time reading a convoluted message that can be conveyed in several words or less.

That is perhaps what bothered me most about my colleague’s sign — it wasted my time and it was looking to waste everyone else’s time. It implied that a customer was going to stop shopping and spend time reading a cautionary tale printed in 14 pt sans serif font. If I had to guess, I’m assuming that most customers probably saw the sign, noticed that it contained more than five words and then immediately stopped reading it. Because the sign couldn’t hold their attention or get to the point fast enough, the customers didn’t get the message and then CONTINUED DOING THE THING THAT WE DIDN’T WANT THEM TO DO.

I did not end up confronting my colleague about this, deeming it a “pick your battles” kind of situation. The signs went ignored by pretty much everyone and gradually fell off of the hampers.

What I wish I told my colleague is that when you’re crafting a message — verbal or written — you need to consider how your intended “audience” is going to receive it.  In most cases, including retail environments, you need to know that folks are not going to give you a lot of time and they are certainly not going to put in any additional effort in order to understand your message.

I believe this holds true regardless of your medium: your messages needs to be quick and it needs to be clear. Just tell your clients or colleagues what they need to know. Don’t waste their time or your own time with superfluous language, unnecessary details or explanations of the obvious, especially if someone’s immediate safety is involved.

Even if you are not a professional writer or communicator, you need to know that different audiences will have different expectations and allow you to use different techniques. If you communicate with other human beings at work (or your day-to-day life), do yourself a favor and consider the mindset and setting of the people you’re looking to reach and how you can craft your message to appeal to them for maximum effect.  You don’t need to be an author to think about, or benefit from, literary elements like syntax, tone and sentence structure.

Simply put, what you’re writing and who you’re writing to should dictate how you write and where you publish it. If you’re crafting a message, take the time to think about it critically and ask yourself questions. For instance, does long-form prose belong in something like a blog post that someone might read while sitting down at their computer? Sure. Does it belong in a sign that is supposed to notify a spacey customer within seconds that they’re in potential danger? NO!!!!NO!!!!!NO!!!!!!


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