Halfway through a Sunday morning church service, the timber-framed roof creaked. Then the building started to shake. This was before Christchurch’s earthquakes — so we just had general safety advice: to get under the pews or move to the front of the church.
Genteel confusion followed. The jarrah pews were solid, but only a child or a small (and flexible) adult could squeeze under them.
And from outside, the ‘front’ of the church appeared to be where the main door and bell-tower are. But once inside, the pews all faced the sanctuary and altar at the other end of the church. Which was the front?
Added to that, two panicking mothers ran to the ramshackle hall next door to grab their children from Sunday School, colliding with children evacuating through the only door. And no one knew what to do next.
It was a case of involuntary user-testing. We failed miserably in our safety drill — mostly because back then people thought the chance of an earthquake during a Sunday service was so slight.
So we started talking about a better approach to earthquake safety. The 1926 church had brick walls and a roof with an interior timber frame. Thanks to horizontal steel rods installed decades ago, it was above minimum code, but not by a lot. The 120-year-old church hall next door (the original church) was so dilapidated, we weren’t allowed to hire it out. And all our children were in there!
So I offered to write earthquake safety notices to be posted in the church, and then had to look at what I’d learned at Write about good instructions.
Clarify your purpose for writing, then refine it down to the minimum information needed in a crisis. You can write more in your health and safety policies, but in an emergency the safety information has to be short and straightforward.
Everyone who reads the information must be able to understand it. So your audience may determine how you approach the task. If they may not all speak English, perhaps pictures or diagrams will be more helpful than words.
As well as its physical format, think about how you circulate the information — on a sign, by email, on a noticeboard, or even sent to people’s smartphones in an emergency.
Using these guidelines, I identified the purpose (publicising an approved procedure to keep churchgoers safe in an earthquake). The readers ranged from the very elderly, to visitors from other countries, to children.
The instructions had to fix the problems we’d already encountered. After much pencil chewing, I wrote the instructions in black:
— so people would be protected by the wooden roof frame and move well away from the brick walls.
— those solid old pews would protect us if heavy things fell across them, but we didn’t need to actually get under them.
— avoiding any confusion about ‘front’ or ‘back’, and moving people away from the risky end of the church where the bell tower might collapse.
— just outside the church, but well clear of any falling masonry.
— if parents knew we would all be assembling in the same place, they wouldn’t worry about finding their children.
To help people take in the information easily, I removed bullets and optional punctuation to reduce clutter, and used short, strong verbs for the action instructions. A sans serif font also improves readability on a sign.
We’ve had a couple of quakes since then, but no major test of the drill. But in the last shake, I saw a lady in her nineties just kneeling down next to the pews and there was a sense of calm and order. The work had been worthwhile.
We can tailor our workshops to suit your needs, from writing good user manuals and instructions, to specialised technical writing, to assessing the quality of your writing.