Signage confuses and appalls readers, but appeases execs

Signage at a London construction site epitomizes what happens when communicators are forced to write for the wrong audience.

I don’t know about you but, whenever I pass a construction site, I always ask myself if they’re doing all they can not to kill me. Often, just to be sure, I cross the street. Well, imagine how happy I was to see this. Isn’t it reassuring to know that the nice people at Balfour Beatty will achieve zero deaths. I mean, as achievements go, it’s a biggie.

But really, what were they doing before the health and safety department decided that zero deaths was one of the company’s Core Attainment Strategy Objectives? Were they actively trying to kill people? As reassuring as this poster is, the diligent student of bad copy will still be left with some niggling doubts. Take “Zero ruined lives among our people,” for instance. (At least they avoided the egregious “amongst.”) Do their people include members of the public?

Sounds like Kill-joy Corporate Lawyer sent another urgent email: “Not sure we can say we won’t ruin any lives. Not, at least, until any members of the public take residence in these balsa-wood rabbit hutches”.

And what’s with the mathematical “Zero”? The words “No harm” probably didn’t sound corporate enough. But of course, that’s it. Their wanting to sound more corporate has inadvertently tipped their hand. It’s like a weak spot, a poker tell. They don’t consider us human beings; we’re numbers on a balance sheet.

Now, don’t start calling me a cynical old curmudgeon—I admit, I’m pleased Balfour Beatty is concerned with safety—but I just can’t help being a little suspicious when they have to advertise it with an enormous war headline that stretches 40 feet down a busy south London street. Couldn’t they have spent the money on more safety measures. Or are they more interested in appearing to be concerned with safety? OK, I’m cynical.

They didn’t stop at telling us they are not going to kill us. They went on to explain how. “Tracking?” Tracking what? Wild boar? All this woolly list of gerunds does is neatly demonstrate that they emphatically do not know “how we’ll get there.” In case anyone from Balfour Beatty is reading this, here’s my suggestion: Instead of the list, why not demonstrate how you’re trying not to kill anyone.

For example: “Our scaffolding is checked every morning by a professional scaffolder to make sure the structures are completely secure. This is to prevent any loose pieces of corrugated iron flying off in high winds and scything their way down a busy pedestrian street like giant flying razor blades.”

I bet that would make you feel far more comfortable than being told their safety people are “involving.”

Satisfied that they’ve convinced us we’re not going to die, Balfour Beatty goes on to describe the planned building. (Brace yourself: If you’re like me, the following piece of vile corporate-speak will send seismic shivers up and down your spine as you bristle with professional outrage.)

For “Committed to preserving heritage,” I read, “The building is listed, so we’ve no choice but to renovate it at great cost (to the subsidizing taxpayers). What we would have liked to do is knock the whole thing down and erect an enormous glass cube that would be of no use to anyone.”

And please, who ever found an office “environment” inspiring?

All in all, the whole thing comes across as a breathtakingly patronizing box-ticking exercise that does more to flatter Balfour Beatty’s top brass than to allay the concerns of the public. That is, it’s written for the wrong audience.

A final thought: Imagine how ugly the finished building is going to be if it’s as pleasing to the eye as the copy is pleasing to the ear.

David Pollack is senior writer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow him on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.

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