Give me the facts, not the excuses

We’re lucky here in Emphasis Towers. Five minutes from Brighton beach and five minutes from the station, we really have got the best of both worlds. The beach is great. It’s close enough to go for a lunchtime dip on those rare days when the thermometer climbs above 10 degrees. (Not that I have since the summer of 1998. I mean, are you mad: it’s freezing in there. But I could if I wanted to, that’s the point.) And what most people call pebbles, we just call ‘big sand’.

But before I make you too jealous, I have to say that it’s not all sea and sunshine. I usually have to get on a train if I want to get out to our clients, which, for obvious reasons, is quite often.

Now there are people more qualified (and even more fed up) than me who can rant about the rail system. So I won’t bother here. But I do wonder why the rail companies don’t at least get their communications right. Take yesterday morning, for example.

Faulty train outside Haywards Heath

After a couple of hours in the office, I arrive at the station in Brighton in what should be plenty of time for an important lunchtime meeting in London. ‘Delayed’ says the departures board. I look for someone to ask for more information. The man at the ticket barrier doesn’t know anything more. I glance at the departure board again, willing it to have some good news. It doesn’t. A few painstakingly long minutes later, there is an announcement:

‘We are sorry to announce that due to problems with the signalling system in the Clapham Junction area and a faulty train outside Haywards Heath, the 11.55 train to London Bridge is running approximately 25 minutes late.

Excuses, excuses – followed by facts. Social niceties and excuses are fine. (There are enough bad manners in the world, after all.) But if we can’t always have a speedy and reliable rail service, at least give us speedy information. As I stand on the platform with my chances of arriving on time slipping away, all I want to know is exactly how late I’m going to be. So why not say:

‘The train to London Bridge is running at least 25 minutes late due to ”¦’

Just give me the information I need first. Then give me the detail and the reasons.

And just to be clear. Southern Rail is not the only offender here. It’s the same when I arrive in London and go to get my tube connection to Euston. Hurrying towards the escalator, I catch a glimpse of a sign that reads: ‘Due to repairs to the track and staff shortages…’ Unfortunately, I’ve already walked past the sign before I get a chance to read the last part of the sentence. But I have a sixth sense that it’s one of those days, so I go back and check the sign again: ‘…there is a very limited service on the Northern Line today’ the second part of the sentence continues.

I’m quite sure many other people walked passed the sign – and some down the escalator to the platform – before they realised that their chances of getting a Northern Line train were pretty slim.

What, then why

It might seem a small thing, but it’s so easy to remedy, both in speaking and writing. Just give people the information they are most interested in first. Then follow up with the whys and wherefores.

In most cases, the part of the sentence people are most interested in is the main clause:

‘The train to London Bridge is running at least 25 minutes late…’


‘There is a limited service on the Northern Line today… .’

There are a few exceptions though:

‘Fill in our questionnaire if you want the chance to win £500.’

‘Go to Section B if you are under 18.’

Here, clearly, the most relevant part of the sentence for the reader is in the second bit – the secondary clause. So, when writing this kind of sentence, it’s best to put this part first:

‘If you want the chance to win £500, fill in our questionnaire.’

‘If you are under 18, go to Section B.’

Reader’s perspective

Good writing stems from thinking about what you write from the reader’s perspective. And that includes thinking about how they will read it – for instance, in a hurry trying to catch a train.

But London Underground appears to have learned a thing or two about clear writing while I’ve been in my meeting. On the way home the sign says:

‘A good service is running on all lines’.

What it didn’t say was: ‘Due to the fact that not many people are off sick today and there are no repair works going on, a good service is running on all lines.’

Funny that.

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