Don’t use ‘Humpty Dumpty’ words

When organisations’ jargon uses common words in a special way, their customers are likely to misunderstand them. This is an example from a local government website where the word ‘pergola’ is used in a restricted sense, as defined by state legislation.

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. (Through the Looking Glass)

Speak your customers’ language

This reminds me of a conversation I had when I called my local council to check whether I needed a building permit to build a pergola. It went something like this:

Me: ‘Hi, I want to know if I need a building permit to build a pergola. I’ve been to your website and found the building permit fact sheet which says I don’t need one if the building is under a certain size. But a neighbour assured me I did and suggested I call you to clarify the situation’.

Council man: ‘Will it have a roof?’

Me: ‘Yes’.

Council man (in that scornful Humpty Dumpty tone): ‘You should have scrolled down further. If it’s got a roof we call it a verandah. All verandahs need a permit’.

A bit miffed at his tone, I went back to check the fact sheet. I scrolled down, as instructed, and found the verandah section. It said:

‘Verandahs. Construction of a verandah attached to any building. Permit required? Yes.’

I scrolled back up to the pergola section where it said:

‘Pergolas. Not more than 3.6m high, 20m square in area and located at the rear of the building to which it is appurtenant. Permit required? No.’

There was no mention of a roof in either section, or anywhere else on the fact sheet. Yet is seemed to be the significant issue, based on my phone call. I then assumed, but I’m not sure how I was supposed to know, that a pergola became a verandah when you put a roof on it.

Changing the meaning of words is risky

In the lead up to this conversation with my local council, I had spoken to a range of people about my project. Some had structures just like the one I wanted to build and they called them ‘pergolas’. I had looked on the web trying to find someone to build one for me and all the pictures I saw of pergolas were referred to as ‘pergolas’, not ‘verandahs’.

Since then, I’ve spoken to more people about the issue. They commonly use the term ‘pergola’ for the structure I want to build. And I’ve done some experiments in my web writing workshop, asking people to read the fact sheet. Most have come to the same conclusion — you don’t need a building permit for a pergola.

There is a clear lesson here. If you use a word to mean something other than its common meaning, you run the risk of giving people the wrong message.

Explain any special uses of terms

I’ve since had a look at a few other council websites. I discovered that state building regulations are the reason for the shift in meaning. Here’s what I found on one of those sites, under the heading ‘Build a pergola’:

‘if it has a roof … then it is classified as a ‘verandah’ by the State of Victoria, and as such, would then require a building permit’.

It’s that simple to fix a potential problem. If laws or rules require a special use of terms that people may then misunderstand, say so.

Listen to your customers, and fix your content!

The most annoying thing about this situation was not the confusing use of terminology (although it might have been if I’d built the pergola without the permit). It was the Humpty Dumpty attitude I got on the phone. It was clear that I wasn’t the first customer to call about this issue: the council employee was ready with his response—’you should have scrolled down further’.

Being scornful is not the solution. Fixing your content is.