Posted by Brian on December 16th, 2005
The other day I sent a paper form to someone through our school district “pony” (inter-office mail) system. I inadvertently put my name and location, and the intended receivers name and location, on the wrong lines of the little address label we use. Of course, it came back to me. Instead of putting a new address label on it, I scribbled out the old “To” and “From” on the form and wrote in “To” and “From” by the correct names. The paper came back to me again.
I was actually surprised at first, then a bit angry. “Don’t the people in that mailroom know how to read a label?” I thought. After further reflection I realized that the person who returned my outgoing mail to me, not only didn’t “read” my edited address label, but that I shouldn’t have expected him or her to .
The label is standardized precisely because of the need to move the mail efficiently. The school location and person the item is going to are listed at the top for a reason. In the stack of mail being sorted, no doubt the mailperson barely glances at the top line just long enough to know, likely more from reflex than from conscious thought, which bin to toss it into.
I sent the form a third time with a new label correctly filled out. But, it has started me thinking. This anonymous person, glancing only briefly at a label that I had edited, only saw what they had expected to see instead of what was actually written there. The scary thought is: What if this is true of ALL readers ALL the time???
Later, I watched my teacher colleague and friend Mark read his email. I was interested because I had sent him a copy of a proposal I had written and wanted to know what he thought of it. It was very instructive to watch him. “You didn’t read those emails,” I said (did I use an accusatory tone?) as he zoomed through several. “I read enough to decide if I wanted to read it!” he replied. “Isn’t that a good reading skill?” He had me there, but I moved on to my real agenda. “But you didn’t read the one I wrote, either,” I complained. “Yes I did.” “Not that fast,” I argued back. “You just skimmed it.” “It said the same thing you already had told me about.”
Since I HAD already told him the main points of my proposal, he was able to glance at my written words and see what he had expected. ‘Yep, those are the points he told me about.’ But what I had wanted was for him to tell me if those points were clearly made in the written proposal. We were at cross purposes. Lesson? A writer has precious little control over how his work is read (or misread, or skimmed, or skipped!) Readers have their own agendas.
Finally, last night I sent a text message to my daughter’s phone and then later asked her about it in person. It quickly became clear that she had read the first half of the message but not the last line. From my point of view, she had “skimmed” the message rather than “read” the message.
To me, if I have not read a book from cover to cover, I don’t consider that I have read it. But I am beginning to realize that I am in the minority and that email and text messaging have made my definition of “reading” nearly obsolete. As a writer of emails and text messages and blogs and an ebook, I wonder if there is anything I can do to encourage my readers to read what I say, rather than what they EXPECT me to say.
I don’t have a definitive answer here, but there are two areas I want to explore further. The first consists of the old newspaper techniques of “lead” writing and the “inverted pyramid.” Journalists are taught to include Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? in the first paragraph (as much as possible in the first sentence!). The “inverted pyramid” style of writing includes as many details as possible as early in the article as possible so that the end can be chopped off by the editor as needed for space considerations. This idea suggests that in my text message to my daughter I should have “lead” with my invitation to lunch rather than put it in the last sentence where she didn’t see it.
The second area worth exploring is to use personal stories even when your communication intent is educational/informative rather than social. Personal stories are inherently interesting to readers and draw them in to your presentation. Perhaps one reason is because they are unpredictable and new rather than “expected.” If you, dear reader, are still with me at this point of a rather long blog post, I suspect it is because this post contains several personal stories to illustrate its points. Thanks for reading to The End.