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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

The Problem with ALL CAPS MESSAGES

a shelter in place message for a civil emergency

Messages delivered in ALL CAPS have a problem. Writing in ALL CAPS may seem like a reasonable strategy to get people's attention (because when you're yelling, you can be louder than all the noise around you), but it has some drawnbacks.

FIRST - messages written in ALL CAPS seem like they're yelling an entired message. No variation, no intonation, just straight out shouting.

SECOND - and related to the first - they're hard to read. The uniformity of rectangular shapes means readers cannot identify letters by their shape. The more contrast there is in letter shapes, the easier it is for users to recognize words. When an entire paragraph is composed in all caps, it is difficult to know what is the important information and what is extra information that supports the key facts. This is important for ANYONE reading a lot of text, as well as those with limited reading ability, dyslexia, or limited English proficiency.

Lower case letters are easier to read. The recommended alterative to ALL CAPS is to use bold for emphasis. But, WEA doesn't allow that feature yet and the best strategy that we've identified thus far is to emphasize individual words using ALL CAPS in the midst of lower case letters. In fact, recent eye tracking research (under review) showed that participants who viewed messages that included both upper and lower case words had fewer eye fixations on words in ALL CAPS but rememebered them more frequently when asked to describe what was contained in the message.

Of course, the Warn Room has a few additional suggestions about how to improve the message above. When applying the Warning Response Model (WRM) we see that the message is missing information about the hazard (it is described as a civil emergency - a type of jargon for law enforcement), the location (in this area), and the time. The sender also states "this concludes the message," almost as if the written message was meant to be spoken aloud. Improvements could be made by writing in lower case, explaining the potential impacts from the civil emergency threat, describing what "shelter in place" means (lock doors and windows?), and describing the area that is at risk.

For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.


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