Would your writing pass the ‘Bus Depot Test’?

“Out of the way! Better writing coming through…”

“Out of the way! Better writing coming through…”

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about our country’s ratings in the math and science departments… basically, we need to do a better job preparing our kids for the future. The thing is, our students’ written communications don’t score so well, either.

I can see this every day, and I’m sure you can too. Typos galore. Weird grammar. Emails you have to read three times to decipher their cryptic messages. Bad writing seems to be viral.

Having been a copywriter now for more than two decades, all of this kills me. I love the richness of words… the power they wield… the ideas they can stir up. Writing is not only about expressing a thought or concept, it’s about connecting with the person reading it. And that’s not always easy to do.

So, here’s a quick and fun trick to see if your writing is clear, concise and engaging. This is something I created about 10 years back, and it has helped me and others I’ve shared it with create much better communications. And it works almost instantly.

To get started, imagine this scene: You’re in a bus depot, on a snowy night, waiting for your bus to show… and it’s already two hours past due. You’re all alone, except for a janitor or two, and the food and magazine stands are long closed. Your iPhone’s battery is near dead. And the bank of neon-colored, hard plastic seats you’re trying to get comfortable in are badgering your sciatica. You just want to get home.

Then suddenly, you notice something a few seats down.

Someone forgot a large 9×12 envelope. You slide down, open it, and find a stack of papers inside—some kind of story or term paper or something. All the time, you keep checking the board to see if your bus has arrived. You check your fading phone for messages. And crackling elevator music blares over ancient overhead speakers. Despite your boredom, aggravation and distractions, you start to read.

Now, the story can take any number of twists from here. The paper you found and have started to read could be engaging, and you finish every word. It could also be confusing as hell—and as you mentally wade through it, you just get more aggravated.

Now let’s do a switch… and imagine that it’s not you in the bus depot. Instead, you’re the person who wrote that paper. How would your writing do?

You see, this dreary little fable reveals a lot about the vast majority of people you’re writing to… whether it’s a simple email or a multi-page proposal. Like our bus depot hero, the person you’re writing for is likely…

  • Overwhelmed and time crunched
  • Absorbed in what’s happening in their world, at this moment
  • Distracted by countless little aggravations

And here you are, trying to communicate with this person.

When you understand… empathize… with your reader, all of the sudden you see your writing in a different way. You start asking yourself questions like:

  • If someone saw this cold, would they understand it?
  • Am I being crystal clear?
  • Have I gotten to the point quickly enough?
  • Is this interesting? Would I read this?

You get the idea.

So whenever you’re tasked with writing something to someone, put yourself in that drab little bus depot on a stormy night and ask yourself, “Would my writing pass the bus depot test?”

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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