Why This Bathroom Sign Is a Great Explanation

I don't often look to bathrooms, much less camping toilets for great communication, but this is an exception.  

In many state-maintained campgrounds in Washington State (and elsewhere), there are "vaulted toilets" with no running water.  Like an outhouse, everything ends up in underground pit that must be maintained.  This presents a problem.  Campers sometimes use the toilet as a trash can, which makes for a difficult situation for the people who need to remove the waste.

Inside these toilets are signs that are meant to help address this problem and I think they are remarkably effective because they explain the situation.  These signs work because they answer two important questions:

1. What do you want me to do?

2. Why does that make sense?

In our everyday lives, a lot of communications focus on question #1 - "what do you want me to do?"  Separate your recycling. Eat this food. Don't touch that.  These can be effective, but the real effectiveness comes when the answer to question #2 becomes clear to the audience.  By answering "why does this make sense?" the sign becomes an explanation - it becomes more understandable and reasonable.

Here's the toilet sign answering question #1, What do you want me to do?:

Alone, this could help, but they didn't stop there.  They added an extra point that I think makes all the difference.  Here's the answer to question #2, Why does that make sense?:

I believe by answering question #2, the sign makes people motivated to do the right thing.  It has context and foundation.  There is a valid reason you should not put trash in the toilet - it makes pain for others. Most people, given a choice, don't want to create pain for others and it's a motivating factor.

In conclusion...

It's easy enough to go through our professional lives trying to motivate others by answering question #1. "I need you to do this." But I hope that you'll remember the toilet sign above.  By remembering to answer question #2, by explaining why it makes sense, you can give people a way to see that it's understandable, reasonable and something they may want to do. 

NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy.