How people really read

I’m celebrating my 2nd anniversary on Pros Write with a story about how people read. I’ve used this fable for many, many years in classes and workshops to get people to think about the way people read in the real world. And the importance of a plain language approach to writing.

The Geologist’s Trousers

 

Photo Credit: theobjectivesea photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: theobjectivesea photography via Compfight cc
Somewhere in the western US, let’s say near Valentine, Nebraska, a rancher reaches into his mailbox and pulls out a brown envelope.
 USGS_green The logo is for the United States Geological Survey. He thinks:“Why are they writing to me?”

“Do I have to do something?”

 usgs 1 He opens the letter, begins reading & thinks:“Okay. This sounds like a form letter.”

He decides to try to determine if the letter is junk mail.

 usgs 2 He reads the first sentence & thinks:“Huh?”

 

 usgs 3 He skips ahead & thinks:“Why can’t they just say what they mean in English?”

He decides to give the rest of the letter a quick scan.

 usgs 4 He looks for dollar signs or numbers & thinks:“I must not owe any money.”
 usgs 5 He skips to the end, reads & thinks:“But I’m NOT interested! What’s any of this got to do with me?”

 

He puts the letter in a pile on his desk and forgets about it.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Compfight cc
Several weeks later a geologist from the USGS is bending down digging into the soil on some land near Valentine.

Photo Credit: Tigresblanco via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tigresblanco via Compfight cc
He is terrified when he hears a click, looks up, and sees a shotgun pointed at him.
 USGS geologist The young USGS geologist stammers:“Soil samples! We sent you a letter. We told you we were going to visit your property to collect soil samples for a study!”

I was told this is a true story. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I first encountered it! If you know the source, please post a comment so I can give credit where it’s due.

Author: ProsWrite

I am a linguist who studies workplace language. My mission is to empower people at work by discovering and sharing the truth about communication.

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