The Blog

What the Doctor Can Teach Us About Terms and Conditions

Like all sane people, I try to draw all my life lessons from Doctor Who.

In an episode last year, the Eighth Doctor (that'll be Paul McGann) is told that he has only four minutes left to live.

'Four minutes? That's ages. What if I get bored? I need a television, couple of books. Anyone for chess? Bring me knitting.'

Or he could've tried to read some terms and conditions. We just did some research to find out how long people spend reading terms and conditions, for instance when they sign up for something online. I was gobsmacked, but the average is some 4 minutes and 42 seconds. (Admittedly it's probably not what they'd do with their last 4 minutes 42.)

It's much longer than I'd expected. But still not actually long enough to make head or tail of most Ts&Cs.

Because we also checked how long it takes to read a set of Ts&Cs. We looked at 30 big brands, and the average was 28 minutes. (The great Language Log found that Airbnb's would take about three-and-a-half hours, reading at 250 words a minute.)

Not only that, but if you measure the reading age you need to understand them, for most, it's university level. And most of the population doesn't have a university-equivalent reading level.

All of which makes me a little bit irate.

Most big businesses - employing teams of highly qualified lawyers - are asking the likes of you and me to sign up to deals they know we probably won't have time to read properly, and probably wouldn't actually understand if we did, what with not being highly qualified lawyers and all. It seems likely that if they're not actually being unfair, they're certainly taking advantage of the power they have over us.

And I think it's dumb. Yes, those businesses might save themselves a few grand by avoiding the odd small claim with their weaselly, back-covering drafting. But how many of our backs do they get up by doing it?

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out that for doctors in the US, your bedside manner is a better indicator of whether you get sued than how many mistakes you make. In short, friendly doctors who make mistakes get sued less than unfriendly doctors who don't. Which suggests that the tone in which people deal with us matters at least as much as the letter of the law.

And there are a very few companies who've clocked that short, simple - and, most importantly, honest - contracts will make us like them more. Maybe even get us to recommend them to their friends. If you're thinking of sending your beloved child on a gap-year adventure, check out the warning on The Adventurists' website: 97 words that say, 'You might have guessed, but these are genuinely dangerous things to do... You really are putting both your health and life at risk.' (And they're doing just fine despite, or maybe because of writing that.)

And as a writer, I know that if I just bother to make a few tweaks - everyday language, clear subheadings, and simple sentence structures - that will help most people get the gist of most documents, even in 4 minutes 42 seconds. So isn't that what these companies should be asking their highly qualified lawyers to do?