connotation (n.): the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression
in addition to its explicit or primary meaning (from the Random House Dictionary)
Marli Mesibov has a nice piece, The Meaning Behind Connotations, explaining why content strategists must consider the reader’s interpretation of the content – not just its explicit meaning.
She describes an instance where an Internet marketer used an image that offended a lot of people and then tried to blame the people for taking offense. Then she says:
If the user has a certain connotation with a term (or image), then we as content strategists can’t decide they are right or wrong. It’s our job to accept that connotation, or lose the user’s trust.
As any good writer knows, you have to own what you write. You’re responsible for whatever meaning is there — whether you stated it explicitly, whether you laid it between the lines, and even whether you put it there by mistake.
You don’t get to decide what meaning the reader will take away. And because it’s a question of trust, it goes to the heart of the relationship between your business and your customers.
This applies every bit as much to technical writing as it does to content strategy, since the technical content you create falls (or should fall) under the rubric of your organization’s content strategy.
So how do you keep connotations from becoming problems?
Know as much about your audience as you can. Mesibov writes: “[C]onsider the user’s frame of reference, background, immediate situation, and state of mind.” When you do that, when you view your content through a lens other than your own, you’re less likely to get into trouble.
Avoid secondary meanings. Technical writing should be clear and direct. Leave the between-the-lines stuff for after hours.
Check everything. If you can, have someone else peer-edit your content. Is there anything, like a eyebrow-raising example or an accidental double-entendre, that might reasonably offend a reader?
Own what you write. If something might slip through, despite your best efforts, be prepared to apologize — not just “sorry you were offended” — and to fix your content as quickly as you can.
What would you add to this list? What experiences have you had where your readers found meaning that you didn’t intend — or missed meaning that you did intend?