Recently, I participated in an online group discussion with fellow tech communicators expressing their views about the topic of using the word “please” at the beginning of procedural steps. You probably read procedures when you install software or use a product for the first time:
- Rotate the left housing as illustrated.
- Push the OPEN button to open the battery lid.
- Insert one RO3 (Size AAA) battery by matching the + on the battery to the + in the battery case.
In our online discussion, two camps disagreed: Some declared it more civil to say, “Please rotate…” Others felt that simply writing the imperative “rotate” was more direct and concise.
Is civility really the issue?
As a result of the discussion, I responded to the group:
I’m a big fan of civility. However, my concern about using the word “please” in instructions is that if you have a list of steps (instructions), you would be repeating the word in every step:
- Please do this.
- Please do that.
- Please do this other thing.
If you like this repetition, please come over and help me train my grandchildren:
“Grandma, get me some water.”
And then I rephrase it for them, “Grandma, please get me some water.”
[Not much luck yet with this one, but maybe you could help.]
Are the words “please” and “thank you” always linked?
I’m not asking the technical reader for a favor. I need to tell the reader what to do so they can use their technology or fill out a form.
But what about the phrase “Thank you”? Theoretically, if a writer uses “Please,” should he or she follow up with “Thank you”?
Clearly, there’s a fundamental difference here between technical instructions and personal interactions with family, friends, salespeople, or waitpersons. When I ask for a favor from the latter, I say “please” and “thank you.”
But should I use both with my technical readers?
- Please do this. Thank you.
- Please do that. Thank you.
- Please do this other thing. Thank you.
Should we co-opt the reader?
In our online discussion, a retired coder further defended civility, supporting the “please” camp, because he believed that people rebel against being given orders. He argued that using the word “please” could co-opt the user into believing that the writer and the user are working together.
This position seems wrong to me. Instead, I think writers should be above-board and honest with readers. After all, technical readers want to do whatever they need to do quickly so that they can use their technology or tools they need. We as writers don’t need to “trick” readers into action by using the word “please.” Instead, our job is to provide complete, consistent, clear, concise, and correct instructions so that readers can get things done as quickly as possible.
Image courtesy of Bing Images