Technical Communication in film 2: The bad examples
by Danny Naylor
Those of you who follow our social media accounts will be familiar with our #TCFilmFriday posts, where we discuss examples of technical writing and translation used in popular film and TV. We’ve been running these posts for nearly a year now, and even we’ve been surprised at how many examples of technical writing you can find on the silver screen.
If you read our blog, you will also be familiar with a recent article we wrote about some of the best examples of technical writing in film and TV. There we looked at really good examples of fictional manuals, and the lessons that technical writers can learn from them. However, the time has now come for the unenviable task of bringing you some of the worst examples of technical writing in film. Much like our previous article, we’ll look at what makes these examples bad, and what technical writers can learn from these fictional documents – even if it’s as basic as what to avoid when you are writing your own technical documentation.
In Tim Burton’s gothic horror comedy ‘Beetlejuice’, Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin find themselves needing to get to grips with the afterlife following a car accident. Understandably, the couple is confused by their situation and make several mistakes, including having a close shave with a Lovecraftian monstrosity and managing to set themselves alight in a spooky fireplace. Fortunately for them, there is a handy guidebook available to new spirits – it’s called ‘The Handbook for the Recently Deceased‘ and is designed to help the newly departed get acquainted with their new situation. Unfortunately for them, the handbook is written in post-mortem technobabble, and contains passages such as the somewhat obliquely entitled ‘Geographical and Temporal perimeters: Functional perimeters vary from manifestation to manifestation.’
While we really liked the handbook’s delivery method – simply appearing right when it’s needed – the handbook does commit some rather deadly technical writing sins. First, it’s written in specialist technical language. Just imagine, you’re recently deceased, trying to work out what on earth has happened to you while also trying to understand text with titles like ‘Geographical and Temporal perimeters’. Second, the information readers need is hard to find, and even harder to find quickly. Geena Davis has several questions that could easily have been dealt with in a quick-start guide, or even an FAQ section, but as Alec Baldwin points out, the handbook just ‘isn’t arranged that way’.
So, what can we learn from this spooky manual? Well, that it’s really important for technical writers to write in plain, simple language and, even more importantly, make sure users can actually access this clearly written information when they need it. This is especially true in situations where the user might be under stress, in an emergency, or even grappling with their recent mortality. My colleague, Paul Ballard, discusses this further in his blog ‘Communicating about complexity’.
One day in the future, I may have time to fulfil my literary destiny and write my magnum opus on the various lessons that the ‘Evil Dead‘ franchise can teach us about the importance of good quality technical writing, and of following instructions. For now, we’ll just focus on the third film in the series, where our hero Ash Williams is stuck in England during the Dark Ages due to a slight mishap with a time vortex – a mishap easily avoided if Ash had read the instructions properly! In order to return to his own time, Ash must journey to a cursed graveyard where the Army of Darkness are interred, and retrieve the ‘Necronomicon Ex Mortis’, or ‘Book of The Dead’ to you and I.
Ash is given some instructions on how to retrieve the book without waking this army. All he needs to do is recite a simple three-word incantation, and then he can safely remove the book. However, this information is given to Ash verbally, days before reaches the book. With no written information available at the point of use, and the only person he can check with being several days away, Ash does what Ash does best – tries to bluff his way through and blunders the incantation. This of course ends disastrously, and Ash accidentally resurrects the Army of Darkness.
While ‘Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness‘ might not be the most serious or factually correct film, it can teach us a thing or two about the importance of making information available at the point of use. If Ash had been able to check the accuracy of what he thought was the correct three-word incantation when he needed to (at the cursed graveyard), he wouldn’t have had to guess and accidentally resurrect an army of the dead. Back in the land of the living, when users aren’t able to find the instructions they need quickly and efficiently, they may resort to improvising, which can, depending on the product, have some dangerous consequences. My colleague, Matt Rus, wrote about this – the importance of making information available to users when and where they need it, not resurrecting an army of skeletons in a graveyard – in his blog ‘How to ensure your technical documentation works’
Moving to the classic British period comedy ‘Blackadder’, our next protagonist finds himself involved in a deadly duel with the Duke of Wellington. Fully expecting to fight with swords, Blackadder devises a cunning plan to escape, which is thwarted when the Duke insists on using cannons. Having no idea how to operate his Armstrong Whitworth 4-Pounder Cannonette, Blackadder is forced to hurriedly read the instruction manual as the Duke readies his shot. Unfortunately, thanks to the cannonette’s manual being overly descriptive and full of superfluous information, Blackadder is shot before he can figure out how to use it.
As you can probably guess, there are some rather serious issues with this manual. Most importantly, the crucial, and in this case life saving, information just could not be found when it was needed. This is made worse by the fact that most cannons, by their very purpose, tend to be used in very stressful circumstances, when clear, simple instructions are needed. Unfortunately for Blackadder, the manual contained overly long and irrelevant information that was very difficult to understand. A ‘Getting started’ section would have been really helpful in this scenario, tailored to those situations when you need to use a cannon in an emergency.
What this example shows us is that good technical writing needs to be written with the audience in mind – why, when, how, and where will the user will be accessing the information? For example, when trying to operate a cannon in a duel with a bloody-thirsty Duke, the last thing the user wants to do is to read through pages and pages of text to find the information they need – the information needs to be easy to access and easy to understand, even in the most challenging of circumstances. This very important point is examined in greater detail by my colleague Rachel Potts in her article ‘Why the Skill of Writing Well Matters‘
These are just some examples of bad technical writing we’ve encountered in popular film and TV over the past year. There are plenty more, such as ‘Big Bang Theory’s‘ terrible model helicopter instructions, which can’t be figured out by a physicist or an engineer, or ‘The Young Ones‘ episode where the gang struggle to get a VHS player to work, only to discover they’ve been reading toaster instructions, or even James Bond’s blatant disregard for instruction manuals in ‘Die Another Day‘.
However, as bad as these fictional examples are, there are clear lessons technical writers can learn to improve their own technical writing. Making sure that you craft your documentation using clear language, structuring content so it can be easily accessed, making sure important instructions are available at point of use, and just generally writing with the user in mind, all helps to create documentation that is easy to use. It also means users are getting the most out of your products and services.
If you’d like to find out more about good examples of technical writing in film, you can read our blog using the links below. If you’d like to create some good technical documentation in real life, you should contact us to get in touch. And if you’d like to find out why the ‘Evil Dead’ franchise is secretly a treatise on the perils of bad technical writing, maybe you, like me, need to get outside in the sunshine more often.
Working as a Marketing Manager, Danny thrives on thinking up novel ways to reach customers, as well as creating and running campaigns over digital channels. Away from the office, Danny relaxes by obsessing over films and music, annoying his neighbors with his guitar collection and shouting at the England rugby team.