Like several hundred million other Americans, I received a lump of passive voice in the form of a Presidential Alert yesterday. This was a huge time waster. So I fixed it.
I was out at a farmers’ market when all of our phones and radios started hooting and whining. People got annoyed and kept shopping. Here’s what it said:
Putting aside the “Emergency Alerts” heading, which is part of the phone’s operating system, this alert has 17 words. Short messages need to be clear. This one could be better.
Fundamental writing principles apply equally to a 17-word alert as to a 10,000 word report. In fact, they should apply more.
Let’s do some math here:
I’d estimate that the alert went to 300 million people.
Assume each person took six seconds to read and absorb the message of the alert. Then the total reading time spent by the American public on this alert was over 500,000 hours.
The Iron Imperative says you should treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. Do you think the authors of this alert crafted it in full recognition of the 500,000 hours of our time it would take up? Based on the quality of the message, I doubt it.
Editing the alert
Here are some principles that apply:
- Keep it short. Nice work, presidential alert system.
- Make the title descriptive. Could be better.
- Don’t waste words. Could be better.
- Write in active voice, using “we” and “you.” Fail. The last sentence is passive, as the zombies test reveals. (“No action is needed by zombies.”)
Going back to first principles, what is the purpose of this alert? The government’s purpose is to find glitches in the alert system (and there were a few; the alert disrupted wireless networks in parts of the country). But in terms of communication with citizens, the alert’s purpose is to inform you about presidential alerts.
So let’s rewrite this to make it better.
First, let’s put the most important information in the heading:
Test of Presidential Alert
Now the rest of the text can do its job more easily: telling you about the alert and what to do about. We don’t know who sent the alert. And “No action is needed” is confusing. Needed by whom? Action by whom? The passive raises more questions than it settles. (Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, you probably agree that some sort of action is needed.)
So let’s rewrite this to reflect what it really means, who sent it, and what you need to do.
We’re FEMA, the government’s emergency managers. Relax, this is just a test, you don’t need to do anything.
What if you have questions? Luckily, there’s a place to get answers: the FEMA web site. So let’s add a link to make the alert more helpful. Here’s the full rewritten alert:
Test of Presidential Alert
We’re FEMA, the government’s emergency managers. Relax, this is just a test, you don’t need to do anything. For more information, see www.fema.gov/emergency-alert-test
See? It’s possible to test the system, sound like a human, assuage people’s fears, and inform them all in a short text message.
And all it took was a little forethought before writing a message that 300 million people would read.