Ever walk through a building where the floors were just mopped, something spilled or there has been a leak? Then you’ve probably seen this bright yellow sign: Caution Wet Floor, with an icon of a stick figure going flying.

That’s solid communications.

With just three words and one simple image, the sign conveys the who-what-when-where-why you need to know:

  1. This floor (where) is wet (what).
  2. You (who) need to be careful until it dries (when).
  3. If you don’t heed the warning and walk on the wet area, you could slip and fall (why).

If only a lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York had followed that script.

I thought of the importance of crystal clear communications when I read about a lawsuit just initiated by RPI against a janitorial company.

The lab was conducting research on photosynthesis, which their lawyer said had the potential to be groundbreaking in advancing the field of solar energy. For 20 years, the lab had kept cell cultures and other samples in a freezer set to -80 Celsius. A fluctuation of just 3 degrees would cause major damage. So the freezer had an alarm that would trigger if the temperature moved 2 degrees in either direction.

One day in September 2020, the alarm went off. The temperature had risen to -78. However, the director of the lab and her team concluded that the freezer contents would be safe until they got the freezer’s manufacturer in for emergency repairs.

In the meantime, the alarm continued to sound. So the lab put a lock box around the freezer’s outlet and socket, and posted this warning sign:

“This freezer is beeping as it is under repair. Please do not move or unplug it. No cleaning required in this area. You can press the alarm/test mute button for 5-10 seconds if you would like to mute the sound.”

What the sign didn’t include was the consequence of turning off the freezer. Which in this case was ruining two decades and $1 million worth of research.

When a janitor came in and heard the beeps, he tried to be helpful. He didn’t move the freezer, unplug it or clean in the area. What he did do was flip the circuit breakers, and in doing so he inadvertently turned the freezer off instead of on.

By the next day, the freezer’s temperature was way up to -32 Celsius and most of the cultures, according to the lawsuit, were “compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable”.

While the janitor wasn’t sued, his employer was for improper training.

I feel for the lab. And the janitor. Should he have played with the circuit breakers? Probably not. But when you’re trying to be persuasive (as the lab was) and the stakes are high (as they were), adding context to your communications is critical.

For example, if you’re running a health promotion campaign, your messaging isn’t just “do this” or “avoid that”. You also convey the benefits or hazards of certain health behaviours. Pretty basic.

In the RPI lab, the freezer sign failed to include the equivalent of the slipping person on the Caution Wet Floor sign. That’s the missing context. One more line noting the damage that would result if anything was touched might have prevented the unfortunate incident.

For communicators, it’s a reminder of the need to always explain “why” and not just “what”.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

June 28, 2023


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