“Out of Service” or “Terminal” – Words Matter

WP_20151006_11_46_58_ProBuses in Seattle used to say “Out of Service” when they were being repositioned – moved, say, to the start of the route they will serve next. Now they say “To Terminal.”

What gives? And who cares?

Imagine: It’s rush hour. You’re waiting for a bus. And you see three buses in a row marked “Out of Service.” How does that make you feel about the efficiency and effectiveness of the transit system? Do we keep buying buses that break down? Or is the scheduling so bad that they’re taking buses off the road at the very moment I’m waiting for one the city needs them most?

The new wording makes the situation clearer.1 They’re not out of service, broken, or dumb-scheduled. Rather, they’re going to where they’re needed, and soon, maybe, one of them will pick me up. (Seattle’s King County Metro also uses a cool app called OneBusAway that tells users exactly where their bus is right now, which my son relies on for getting to school by leaving the house at the last possible minute.)

Are You “Out of Service” When You Communicate?

When WP_20151006_11_46_39_Proyou communicate with the client, or with your team, what messages are you delivering? “Out of Service” – or simply “Out” on the small sign on the back of the bus – is not inaccurate, but the message received isn’t necessarily the message intended.

And in communication, reception and perception are reality. The receiver doesn’t care what you meant.

Lawyers live and die, in effect, via communication. Yet so often they do not communicate effectively.

“Effectively” is the key word.

WP_20151006_11_46_14_ProConsider the average contract, where lawyers spend days trying to get the wording absolutely clear.2 That’s fine – probably – for most contracts, but that’s not communication, at least not in a form useful for communicating directly with the client or the team. “Unambiguous” and “effective” are not the same thing.

I’m not suggesting that ambiguity is necessarily a good thing, but rather that communicating the key message clearly trumps the need for no-contingency-uncovered legalspeak. Two sentences that seem similar to you might not be at all the same to the client.

Think not just about the message you want to deliver, but how it will be received. And focus on the reception of it, not the delivery.

After all, you don’t want your client to think you should be “Out of Service.”

Liza: He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.
Higgins: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.
– George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (it’s in My Fair Lady, too)


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  1. Is “To Terminal” the best wording? I don’t know, but “To Terminal” remains a vast improvement.

  2. Except for sections they leave intentionally ambiguous.