How To Write Public Service Announcements (For Non-native English Speakers)

When’s the last time you used the word ‘alight’?

If you use the bus or train in Dublin, Ireland, you might hear or see:

‘Take care when alighting the bus.’

Yes. today’s culprit is the word alighting. Alighting means dismount.

What they should say is something like, ‘Be careful when getting off.’ or even Mind the Step.

How to write public service messages (that people understand)

Common sense would suggest that we write instructions that help readers (or listeners if it’s an audio message) to achieve their goals – not to make us sound clever.

It’s also make sure there is no margin for error, no ambiguity, and that the reader/listener can understand the message the very first time they hear it.

For me, the warning message, Take care when alighting the bus, fails this test.

Why?

It confuses non-native English speakers. Will they even understand the word alighting?

It sounds like a light ing (which means nothing) or a light thing (also confusing),

It also erodes the confidence of your audience.

After all, if they can’t understand what you’re saying, they’re likely to ignore the message.

This creates a cycle of mistrust.

Once you lose their confidence, it’s hard to coax them back.

3 public service messages guidelines

If writing public messages is part of your job, look at messages critically.

Is this how people speak?

Do they use these words?

What works better?

Consider the following:

  • Use every day language.
  • Write to help, not adhere to style guides.
  • Avoid jargon, clichés, or dated phrases.

Insecure writers recycle what others write.

Remember: guides are just guides.

Stand up for your audience.

Write what you know they’ll understand.

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