A bank branch manager recently told about one of her premier bankers. His emails were full of misplaced capitalization, typos, and other glaring errors. When she tried to correct him, he said, “Look, I know my clients. They’re my friends. It doesn’t matter if there are mistakes; they know what I mean.” He had generated a lot of business, but his numbers were falling. Then the manager received a private email from one of the banker’s biggest clients. He wrote, “Please take Mark off my account. If he can’t spell, I don’t believe he can handle our finances.” This was a $5 million account. The client email became part of the banker’s personnel file. He was dismissed soon after.
Yes, readers may be able to figure out what the banker meant. But they will also figure out that he doesn’t care about details, and perhaps that he is ill-educated or ignorant. All these conclusions are bad for his credibility and for his employer’s reputation.
This “It doesn’t matter if there are mistakes” attitude is creeping into the world of business writing and leading to an erosion of quality. We are looking at a societal erosion of respect for standards, and business writing is just one domain where fighting the good fight is becoming harder than ever.
Here are four common reactions when managers point out writing errors, along with ideas to rebut them.
– “It’s my personal style”
When shown their errors in syntax, some folks say, “Those are stylistic changes, not substantive ones. You’re ruining my personal style.” But you can have a distinctive personal style that doesn’t involve outright errors. You can have a personal style of clothing at work that includes a wide array of options, but most people cannot wear dirty, saggy torn-up clothing to a business meeting. Similarly, there’s nothing stylish about mismatching singular and plural, dangling modifiers, using an incorrect word, or allowing typos to stand.
– “Just get it done, even if there are errors”
In a fast-paced environment, the pressure is relentless to “get it done”. Sometimes “get it done” takes precedence over “get it done right”. But if you don’t get it done right, there are prices to pay. The reader may misunderstand and turn into a pesky pen pal asking for clarification. Or maybe the message will slide through, but the reader will come away thinking that the company which sourced the message is run in a hasty, slapdash manner. Is that what you want?
– “You’re just being picky.”
Yes, you are being picky. You are picking the correct over the incorrect. Is that so bad?
– “What difference does it make? They’ll understand me.”
In many cases, readers do figure out what that brilliant subject matter expert was trying to say. So is he right to proclaim that it makes no difference that the reader had to rub many neurons together to infer his meaning from the hodgepodge of words he had flung together? I say he is wrong.
The real problem is that the reader might think he understands but he might not really understand the scope and nuance of the writer’s meaning. Only a subject matter expert who takes the time to craft his message will be rewarded with the full comprehension that clear writing creates.
So, to answer the question posed above, mistakes do matter. Writing mistakes:
– Damage meaning,
– Hurt credibility
– Undermine branding
– Cause business problems when misunderstandings, wrong work, and mistakes result from slipshod communication
– Show disregard for standards and disrespect for the time the reader is taking to read the message.
The next time your employee says, “They’ll understand me anyway,” or “What’s the difference?” tell him that in your organization, standards matter too. And you are standing up for them.
©2018 Elizabeth Danziger
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When communication is clear, business flows. When it is murky, the whole organization suffers. Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our training and coaching programs support you in creating better business results through better writing. Visit www.worktalk.com for more information.
If you would like to relieve the communication pains your organization might be feeling, you are welcome to a complimentary 30-minute consultation with Worktalk’s trainers. We will recommend concrete steps you can take right away to reduce the number of mistakes in your corporate communication. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 310.396.8303 to schedule a call.