I get sad when I see a bad piece of communication.

Not a crazy communication like, “Covfefe!” Just bad communication.

I know how many hoops a piece of communication has to jump through to see the light of day. I also know how much influence the people holding those hoops have.

Consider this latest offering seen on a Melbourne tram.

Reading it, I’m not quite sure what I’m allowed to do.

Is the bold headline a separate piece of communication from the sub-head?

If it is, I have to assume the tram company have decided to try and make the headline more memorable than just the simple instruction – the juxtaposition between on and off.


But the structure of the sentence confuses me.

Is it aimed at people who are travelling from outside the Free Tram Zone, reminding them they need to touch on, but if they get off the tram in the Free Tram Zone, they don’t need to touch off. (And the subhead is a separate piece of communication reminding people who are just travelling wholly within the zone.)

In which case, should the headline have been two separate sentences.

Or is it one piece of communication asking people not to touch off before they’ve touched on (because there are penalties for breaking the laws holding the Space Time Continuum together).

Or is it saying if you forget to touch off after the ride, you still need to touch on.

It’s a sentence that makes no sense – except, perhaps, to the person who wrote it.

To my mind, it would be clearer as two separate sentences.

I know it’s just a small sticker on a doorway in a suburban Melbourne tram. Maybe I should care more about the fact the tram came on time. And it was clean. And safe.

Maybe I’m too fresh from a reading of The Broken Window Syndrome.

But I think, if the tram company is going to have a bunch of people going around making sure people have paid their fares and handing out fines for non-compliance, the communications pointing out how to comply should, at the very least, be clear.

  • Remember to touch on.
  • You don’t need to touch off.
  • (And if you’re in the Free Tram Zone, you don’t need to touch on or off.)

If that’s the case, do I ever need to touch off? Which begs the question, why mention touching off at all? When do I need to touch on? When do I need to touch off?

I’m not sure who approved it. Who fought for it. Who gave up the fight for it. Who demanded they have their way. Did anyone stay up late at night fretting over the placement of the comma? Or did everyone just throw their hands in the air and say, “Bugger it. We tried our best. Let them have their stupid comma.”?

Someone approved it.

Whether it was laziness. Or stupidity. Or ego. Or frustration. Or just a lack of thinking through what someone outside the corporate bubble would make of the communication.

They got their way.

It was a victory in the meeting. They got their way.

But the meeting isn’t where the battle needed to be won.

In the real world, in the world where understanding matters, the battle for meaning was lost.