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Do Mistakes Matter?

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.

Is Your Organization Having a Heart Attack?

“Referred Pain” of Problem Communication 

When a person is having a heart attack, her left arm may hurt. The illness is in her heart, but another part of her body is sending pain signals. When pain is felt in a part of the body other than its actual source, doctors call it “referred pain”.
Referred pain occurs because of subtle nerve connections between the actual source of the pain and location where it is experienced. In other words, the locations seem unrelated, but they are connected.

Communication is the Heart
Communication is at the heart of every organization. Do people understand each other? Do they know what is expected of them? Do they feel good about the people they work with?  To a great extent, the answers to these questions depend on how successfully managers and staff communicate with each other.
Just as a physical heart might signal its distress by triggering pain in far-flung parts of the body, communication breakdowns often manifest themselves in a wide variety of organizational dysfunctions.  For example,

  • Productivity declines when hundreds of murky messages and cc’d emails consume so much of an employee’s day that he cannot get his job done.
  • Productivity also suffers when employees frequently have to ask each other to explain what they meant in emails and other documents.
  • Budget overruns can occur when cloudy emails and instructions lead to misunderstandings that require repetitions and re-work.
  • An operations bottleneck can result from employees not understanding directions for production
  • Workplace accidents may increase when safety policies and procedures are conveyed in roundabout, difficult to understand language.
  • A morale crisis may ensue when employees interpret managers' tone as disrespectful or angry.
Each of these issues appears as a separate problem, but at their root, they are problems of communication. Tinkering with the symptom will not alleviate the cause.
 
Is your organization experiencing referred pain?

Communication is ubiquitous but invisible; it underlies every work process, yet often escapes our notice 
When confronted with an organizational problem, it makes sense to look for immediate causes. However, it also makes sense to delve into root causes. By searching for root causes, we can keep the problem from worsening or happening again.

I urge you to consider communication as a factor when you are looking at organizational difficulties. Doing so will keep you from wasting time treating pain in the arm when the problem is in the heart.

Does your organization – or do your clients’ organizations – suffer from referred pain? Could the root cause be a breakdown in communication? If so, contact Worktalk. We give employees the skills and insights they need to communicate clearly, succinctly, and respectfully.
 
©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 

What does Worktalk do?

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 programs support you in creating better business results through better writing. Employees learn to communicate clearly, purposefully, and correctly.We offer customized training programs in business writing and effective email. Courses may be delivered in person or online. Visit www.worktalk.comfor more information, or contact Elizabeth Danziger at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (310) 396-8303.
 
Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:
 
The Magic of Listening Curiously

The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

The Magic of Listening Curiously

 
The new flow meters at a Southern California water utility were acting strangely. They’d been replaced within the past year, but some showed readings that were inconsistent with the previous year’s results. Bob, the senior manager of all the pumping plants, was inclined to blame the technicians who were calibrating the meters. After all, the meters were new, so they were unlikely to malfunction. Bob was pretty sure he was right. However, he wondered if other factors might be at work.
 
He called Arnold, one of the team managers who serviced the meters. “What’s going on with those flow meters?” he asked. Glad to be consulted, Arnold explained that the inconsistent readings were all coming from valves that had been placed outdoors. The new meters were not designed for use in the hot California sun. Bob quickly realized that if they were not replaced promptly, the flow readings for the whole district were likely to be compromised, with potentially catastrophic results.Bob thought he knew the answer to the problem. But before acting, he considered the chance that what he thought was not the only answer, and thereby solved a problem that could have had disastrous consequences.  Instead of approaching the situation with an attitude that he already knew the answer, he wondered about alternative explanations.

When Bob spoke to Arnold, he was open to Arnold’s message. He listened curiously.

What are the elements of curious listening?

When we listen curiously, we come from a mindset of wondering rather than one of already knowing. Maybe we know; maybe we don’t know. We are open, curious, and present in the dialogue in the current moment, not in the past of what we have already said and done.This curiosity is the seed of creative problem-solving.

Curious listening is an attitude rather than an action. Visionary leaders often have the quality of openness to new possibilities, but most of us need to work to develop this habit.

Ask yourself:

  • What would it take for me not to know the answer right away?
  • How can I allow the space for uncertainty, discovery, and creativity?
  • Can I simply be present with another person without the need to judge them, fix them, solve a problem, or take immediate action?

Relating to life and people from curiosity and openness is often, ironically, the best way to get the best solution to a problem. Succumbing to the need to put the other person in a box (younger, less experienced, lower status, had the wrong answer last time…) and jump immediately to the solution that first comes to mind may ultimately cost our organizations and us immensely. Curious listening is the antidote to the problem of rushing for immediate answers.
 

Who listens curiously?

Effective mediators listen curiously when they ask each side to give its version of a situation. Parents often listen curiously when children run in the door from school saying, “Guess what happened today?” Spouses may listen curiously when they ask each other, “How was your day?” And good managers listen curiously when confronted with problems that may have complex or multiple answers.
 

Could you give it a try?

It may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to give up the role of being the person who always knows the  answer right away. But if we are willing to embrace curiosity and uncertainty, we open vistas of possibility untethered by our past.


 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
 
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this post on 8 Habits of Curious People.

Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:
 
The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

 

In a writing training at a large multinational corporation, I asked, “What are the costs of unclear messages and emails?” I expected answers like, “The wrong work gets done,” and “Operations slow down.” But that’s not what I got. A woman’s hand shot up. “They don’t affect me at all,” she said. She shrugged nonchalantly. “I just ignore them.”

I was stunned. This company has 25,000 employees. If even a fraction of them was routinely ignoring messages that were unclear, what would the consequences to the organization be? At the least, the people who sent the unclear messages would send follow-up emails and messages to the people who had ignored them, adding to email overload and draining productivity.

The Costs Are Enormous

But email overload was not the biggest danger. What if those garbled documents and emails contained important information such as new policies, safety procedures, customer relations directives, and operational instructions? If many people ignored those messages because they did not understand them, the whole organization would be dragged down.  The disregarded messages could also expose the company to serious safety and legal consequences.  

The flow of communications keeps the energy pulsing throughout every organization. When the system is bogged down with sludgy, mushy messages, the whole network suffers. Then the wrong work gets done, operational bottlenecks pop up, and executive directives die before they are delivered.

Motivating Employees to Get to the Point

What does it take to get employees to get to the point? Some of the solution lies in training: They need to know how to get to the point. But culture counts, too. If top managers send out buzzword-filled memos that no one understands, they set the tone. If managers tolerate murky messages, decoding them as best they can and never giving writers feedback, they are part of the problem. Once employees disengage and say, “I just ignore messages I cannot understand easily,”  the potential costs become scary. That’s when it’s time to intervene.

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:

The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our training programs help you achieve better business through better writing.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Danziger today. She can be reached at (310) 396-8303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
  • Energetic and entertaining. +

    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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