Written by Mark L. Levinson

In this space, as weeks go by, I will touch on issues as micro as punctuation, as macro as audience analysis, and as meta as humoring collaborators. From time to time, for the sake of examples, I will refer to a fictional product such as TiePlumb, the computer-based photographic gauge for necktie straightness.

When you start reading the TiePlumb User Guide, be it a booklet or a help system, what should the first sentence say to you? I’ve seen some first sentences that say “Welcome,” I’ve seen “Thank you,” and I’ve even seen “Congratulations.”

“Welcome” is supposed to sound friendly, but to me it sounds arrogant and inaccurate. It says, “You are in our territory now. We are the proprietors and you are the disoriented stranger.” Wrong message. Not only does it turn the user frightened and defensive by asserting authority, it also addresses the user as a visitor on your turf when in fact your product is on the user’s turf. The user hasn’t gone to your office. You’ve come to the user’s computer.

The old TV programs used to say, more elegantly, “Thank you for welcoming us into your living room.” The exact reverse. So how about “Thank you for purchasing TiePlumb”?

While “Welcome” is too arrogant, “Thank you” is too obsequious. You owe the users thanks only if the users have gone beyond their own self-interest. But the attitude should be that of course it is in the user’s self-interest to purchase your product because it is a good product for a good price. What do you have to thank them for? For buying a necktie straightness gauge even though nobody needs one? For trusting you even though they can’t be sure your product is any good? Better not to let the user wonder what you’re so thankful about.

So if it’s a fine product, how about “Congratulations on selecting TiePlumb, the best necktie straightness gauge there is”? The problem there is double. First, you might alienate the reader if the reader isn’t the one who selected the product. And second, if your product is the best on the market, you benefit more from letting the user discover how good it is than by imposing the fact of superiority as a statement of your own. As Hemingway said, “If you tell it, you’ve lost it.”

You can remark that “we believe it is the best” or “it has been called the best.” That way you still leave the claim open for the users to confirm or dispute. Then when they find they agree, they will congratulate themselves on their good judgement and be happier with your product than if you tried to force the opinion on them up front.

So if not “Welcome,” not “Thank you,” and not “Congratulations,” what’s the right opening sentence? I think the best thing you can do is establish a baseline of understanding by telling the reader what the product is. “TiePlumb is a program that uses your computer’s camera and screen to help you gauge the straightness of your necktie.”

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.