Category Archives: Strategic Communication

Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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“People Don’t Read”

Why Your Employees Won’t Read Your Next Communication and What You Can Do About It

“People don’t read.”

I’ve been told this consistently by clients throughout my career. If you believe this, then spending any effort on creating content and communication is futile. The only reason to put anything in writing is to comply with a law or ward off liability.

As a professional communicator, this would be a frightening fact to face. But, is it true?

If we look at the research, we could conclude that Americans don’t read that much. Here are a few highlights:

Unfortunately, this data is not that helpful in answering our question. For one, these are national averages. They might say little or nothing about your employee population. Second, these studies examine how much we read for personal interest. They don’t consider how much we read as part of our jobs, and I haven’t been able to find any good estimates for that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that reading is just one way we consume information. We also use sounds and images. We could also use tastes, smells and touch. Surely, you’ve offered a coworker a slice of birthday cake, been drawn (or repulsed) by the smell of popcorn or given a high five.

In our three-dimensional, multimedia world, we all know that the traditional definition of “reading” is far too narrow to encompass all the forms of content and communication we can create.

So, when a client says to me, People don’t read, what they’re really saying is:

People don’t pay attention.

And, that’s definitely true. Well, sort of.

Our brains evolved to help us survive, but we only have so much cognitive bandwidth at our disposal. We’ve become really good at focusing on things that matter most to us — like food or threats to our safety — and filtering out the rest.

But, let’s not throw our hands up with an exasperated, “People don’t read!” Instead, we need to realize that people only pay attention when you give them something worthwhile.

We can do something with that.

How to Get People to Read Pay Attention to Your Message

The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.

Here are two simple tips to catch and keep your audience’s attention.

1. Write Better Headlines

Here’s a fun fact from the world of copywriting: On average, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

Now, this ratio applies to what people encounter “out there” in the world where thousands of messages are competing for attention. (According to researchers at the University of Southern California, humans broadcast the equivalent of 174 newspapers to every person in the world every day.)

In the workplace, I think it’s different. It’s more likely that your message has at least some amount of inherent importance to your audience. But, remember, we are designed to block out signals we deem unimportant. Don’t make your audience work to find personal meaning or benefit. Don’t make it their problem to figure out whether what you’re trying to communicate matters. Make the meaning obvious from the get-go with a great headline.

Compare the following email subject lines:

SUBJECT: Important! New Facility Security Procedures

SUBJECT: How to get into your office, starting tomorrow

Which of these emails are you likely to open first?

When it comes to catching people’s attention, some communicators get caught up in trying to be clever. And, many marketers know how to use salacious headlines and quirky images to get you to click on a link. I think employers should be careful about using such gimmicks in workplace communications. These tactics essentially trick people into paying attention without giving them a satisfying serving of meaning or benefit in return. Not to mention, such tricks will probably violate your organization’s brand standards. Good creative emerges from understanding what is important to your audience and making that immediately understandable, not from being outlandish.

2. Write to You

Your headline (or subject line) makes a promise to your audience. You’ve promised to deliver information that is personally meaningful or beneficial in some way. The rest of your message needs to deliver on that promise. To do that, it’s best to “write to you.”

By that, I mean you should write in such a way that you can address the audience directly as “you.” Compare the following sentences.

A. “All eligible employees should enroll.”

B. “You should enroll.”

A. “All affected employees will receive an email.”

B. “You will receive an email.”

A. “All participating employees must log in.”

B. “You must log in.”

All the B sentences  speak to directly and clearly to me as a member of the audience. I know it’s about me and, let’s face it, talking about me is a great way to get me to keep paying attention. To boot, these sentences are much shorter and easier to read.

The A statements leave too much for the audience to figure out. Any doubt about personal relevance creates an opportunity for the employee’s attention to be tempted by untold distractions. Writing to you is not hard. In fact, writing to you makes writing content and communications much easier. What can be hard is figuring out what matters to your audience and whether or not you are able to specifically target the right “you.”

Sometimes, targeting “you” is a technical matter. Do you have the right email list? Will only the right people have access to the intranet page? Do you have a budget to create versions of the material so that the message can be sufficiently segmented? Whatever the limitation, go to it so you can get as close to “you” as possible.

In Short …

I think a key thing to remember is that the decision to read something is not solely a conscious one. While we can and do consciously choose to read things all the time, our attention is limited and selective. From out of a deluge of information, things we perceive as important to our survival and our nourishment draw our attention subconsciously, like a magnet. If you want people to read, craft your communications accordingly.

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ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Making Sense of Prose and Pixels


Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.


Tight copy may be the “soul of wit,” yet it takes twice as long to write.


A pre-existing set of conditions affect how audiences hear. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.


The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.


The Greeks knew some stuff. Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.


Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter. Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Hyperlinks Definitely the most underappreciated, yet one of the most powerful, writing developments in our lifetime. Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents.


Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.


Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication is more and more about managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. They shouldn’t. Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.


Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck


Text is great for brevity and/or complexity. Video captures short attention spans. Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness. Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body. What mode is best? Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate all of these into our campaigns.


It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. If you are actually saying something important, someone else is likely disagreeing. Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls.(Hint: don’t feed them.)


Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.


I know we have to use PowerPoint, but why so badly? When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.


For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves. For clarity, answer questions for your audience; questions they might ask if they could.


If it needs to be said, say it again and again. Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it. Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.


Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster. It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms. Tap the brakes for better content.


Impatience can cause an argument or initiative to fail on the launch pad. Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important to campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is desired.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that and why you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.


Professionals often find it easier to slip into their client’s voice than to find their own. We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.


I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast. It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (Smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.


Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).



Zig when others zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

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Beautiful Ideas Beautifully Expressed

How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Used Poetry to Communicate with Power

From 1957 to 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled over six million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times, and wrote five books and numerous articles. He battled injustice wherever he could. He led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, and directed the peaceful march of 250,000 people in Washington, D.C., where he delivered his iconic “l Have a Dream” speech. He was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and, at the age of 35, he became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Decades after his assassination, King’s words continue to resonate with audiences worldwide. The messages themselves were and are vitally important, but King employed poetry to make his delivery even more potent and memorable. In short, King’s messages serve as excellent examples of beautiful ideas that were beautifully expressed.

Below is a list of the 10 most tweeted phrases by King. These are text book examples of how to create sticky messages using poetic devices, such as:

  • the repetition of words,
  • the repetition of sounds (rhyme, assonance, alliteration),
  • the use of imagery
  • metaphor, and
  • parallelism (connecting or contrasting ideas through the use of similar grammatic constructions).

Though short, some of King’s best-known phrases employ multiple literary devices. See if you can spot them. And, consider how poetry, deftly used, could help your own messaging resonate with your audiences.

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

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