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The Oxford Comma Turns Out to Be Worth Real Money

The Oxford or serial comma is the comma that separates the conjunction (such as or, and) from the last item on a list.
 
Furious controversies have erupted over this small punctuation mark. Millions of worthy people maintain that the Oxford comma is a necessity in every list. Millions of other worthy people claim that it is an excessive, irrelevant smudge on the paper. Who is correct? Disputes may rage on, but $10 million is a lot to pay for the lack of one comma.  

Let’s look at some examples and see how they change sentence meanings. In the sentence 
Please buy pens, pencils and paper clips, it does not matter whether there is a comma after pencils.
Now let’s look at:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard. Wow! That’s what I call having illustrious ancestors. But is that what the writer meant?  Writing This book is dedicated to my parents, Paul McCartney, and Merle Haggard clarifies the situation.

Now let’s see what happens when money is at stake.

In the sentence, I leave my estate to my children, Henry, Susan, Alice and John. the situation is ambiguous. Do Alice and John split a third, or does each child receive a fourth of the estate? Writing I leave my estate to my children, Henry, Susan, Alice, and John reduces the likelihood of a lawsuit.

In a recent Maine lawsuit, a group of drivers sought $10 million in overtime pay on the basis of the following law, which stated that employers are exempt from paying overtime wages to employees who participate in:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

So it is clear that the people who pack the food do not get overtime. However, the law says packing for shipment or distribution. This phrase was the basis of the lawsuit. 

Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them? The drivers said that the core of the phrase was packing. The trucking company said that the phrase was intended to include distribution so they did not have to pay overtime to drivers.

If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision. The drivers won their overtime pay and Oxford comma defenders rejoiced.
“That comma would have sunk our ship,” David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said in an interview with the New York Times.

Ironically, the language in the law followed guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which specifically instructs lawmakers not to use the Oxford comma. Don’t write “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers,” it says — instead, write “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers.” This thinking is fine as long as you are listing a bunch of items. But when more sophisticated intent exists, the Oxford comma is a beacon of clarity. Somehow I suspect that manual is about to be revised.

This is not the first – or the last – time that omitting an Oxford commas has had cash consequences. Legal history is replete with cases in which a comma made all the difference, like a $1 million dispute between Canadian companies in 2006 or a very costly insertion of a comma in an 1872 tariff law.

So what’s the answer? Is the Oxford comma mandatory? The answer is, “it depends”. If you’re buying pens and paper clips, or apples and bananas, the lack of the comma is harmless. But, as we have seen, omitting the Oxford comma can be costly. That is why, when I teach business writing and email effectiveness, I advise writers to opt in favor of the Oxford comma. If you use the Oxford comma, the worst case is that you'll have a comma you could have done without. And if you do not use it ... well, ask the owners of Oakhurst Dairy, the company that lost the overtime lawsuit. 

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

“Get to the Point” People vs. “Have a Nice Day” People

There are two kinds of people in the world. I call them get to the point people and have a nice day people. Get to the point people want you to lead with your main point. They do not want you to wish them a nice day. In fact, they might not even care whether they are having a nice day. They just want results. For these people, opening with your main point is best.

However, have a nice day readers feel put off by having the main point thrust in their faces before you establish a feeling of friendly relationship. For these readers, a sentence or two that acknowledges their humanity and emphasizes a shared experience will open them up to your message.

When your reader needs you to establish a relationship before pursuing results, starting with the main point may be a mistake. Hard-driving Americans, especially Northerners and Westerners, often feel that all that matters is to get to the business at hand. However, outside the United States, and in some regions of the United States, the get-to-the-point mentality is considered rude. Have a nice day people need you to wish them a nice day.

In a training I led in the American South, a woman stated that if an email did not open with a polite greeting and comment, she would delete it without reading it. “If the person doesn’t respect me enough to greet me kindly, I don’t want to know what he says,” she announced. While this position may be extreme, the fact remains that getting straight to the point is off-putting to many people.

Getting to the point vs. having a nice day attitudes vary among cultures. When the reader’s culture prioritizes relationships, she may feel insulted if you get straight down to business.  As Lanie Denslow of World Wise, an expert in global communication, says, “Americans are all about communicating data and facts quickly. We get to the point and move on. However, for our colleagues from most of the rest of the world, maintaining a polite, pleasant relationship between the parties is as important as sharing information.” Many Americans feel the need for connection as well.

Denslow recommends that when writing outside North America and most of Western Europe, you take the time to write a few sentences at the beginning of the communication to build toward your main point. She advises, “Begin with something else that you share with the reader; then move to the problem you need to discuss.” In other words, assume that outside the US and Western Europe – and even within many areas of these regions – the person you are writing to is a have a nice day person.

When writing to these readers, start out slowly. Comment on some positive event or a shared experience. You can even comment on the weather. Your opening comment need not be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize; it just has to humanize your communication. Remind the reader of your relationship. Once you have established your connection, you can start getting to your point. For example, if you have to share some bad news with your reader, you could start by writing:

Dear Alexandra, 
I hope you are enjoying this lovely springtime. I remember fondly when I visited your office last year, and we took a walk through the public garden. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already! 
I need to write to you about a problem we have been having, which I hope you can help with…

Remember, everything in writing comes down to the reader. If putting your main point first will make your reader feel assaulted or insulted, why do so? Focus on your communication goal, which is to convey your ideas into your reader’s mind with as little resistance as possible. If you know your reader needs you to get straight to the point, don’t make him wait for it while you dither in useless greetings.

But if your readers are have a nice day people, whether because of their culture or their personality, open your message gently and lead up to your main point. And if you don’t know what kind of person your reader is, err on the side of caution by using the have a nice day approach. You can always become more get to the point later.

As we say in Worktalk writing programs, “Write for your reader!”
 


 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

See our recent Writamin on when you should NOT get to the point.
See our recent Writamin on getting to the point.

Read Writamins on these topics:

Emailing Effectively
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/emailing-effectively

Writing Well
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/writing-well

Choosing the Right Word
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/choosing-the-right-word

Thoughts on Writing
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/thoughts-on-writing

Writing Within Organizations
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/writing-within-organizations

Business Costs of Poor Communication and How to Avoid Them

What are the costs of poor communication?

  • For 400 companies with over 100,000 employees in the U.S. and U.K, the estimated cost of employee miscommunication is $37 billion. The average cost per company is $62.4 million per year. Smaller companies face significant costs as well.
  • A study of 4,000 employees showed almost half (46%) were unsure of what was being asked of them by their line manager when given tasks and over a third (37%) experienced this uncertainty between one and three times a day.
  • Poor communication plays a role in many organizational problems, including increased employee turnover, increased absenteeism, poor customer service, ineffective change management, failed project delivery, greater incidence of injuries, and higher litigation costs. All of these factors lead to decreased profitability and lower shareholder return.

What is poor communication?

Poor communication…   And its costs…
A company worker sends an email or memo about something that needs to get done. The receiver does not understand what he or she needs to do.   The receiver asks the sender to clarify (wasted time), does the wrong work (wasted time and productivity), or ignores the message because she doesn’t understand it (total loss).
A company worker sends an email or text and the receiver interprets the tone as hostile, dismissive, or disrespectful.   The reader gets sidetracked responding emotionally to the message without handling the actual situation. The receiver complains to other employees about the sender, which sabotages organizational culture. Nothing gets done, because the tone hijacked the message.
A company worker writes a quick message to a customer, but doesn’t check it over. It turns out he spelled the customer’s name wrong, made obvious grammar errors, or mistakenly sent the message to the wrong person.   The customer is offended. She loses confidence in the company, and looks for a better provider. If she receives a message and realizes that it was not meant for her,she becomes seriously concerned about the security of her own information, and leaves the company immediately.
Someone writes a report or email and warns of an impending problem and suggests a possible solution… but his message is long, drawn-out,  and never makes a clear point .   The reader either doesn’t finish reading the report or doesn’t realize how important it is. The problem goes unsolved and negative consequences occur.

Poor communication – especially poor written communication – costs businesses billions of dollars a year.  Some estimates range at about $26,000 per year per employee in lost time, diminished productivity, and increased errors.  What’s sad is that the costs of poor communication can be avoided.

Avoiding the Costs of Poor Communication

How can you avoid the costs of murky memos, egregious emails, and loathsome letters? By giving your employees something they probably never learned in school: Guidance about what communication standards you expect them to keep. Here are a few standards that most organizations would benefit from adopting:

  1. 1.Make the main point or request within the first 40 words of every document.

Many people do not read to the end of the documents they receive. They may read the first few lines, and then lapse into skimming mode or bail out of the document altogether. If writers do not make their points early, they risk not having them heard at all.

  1. 2.Use language you know your reader will understand. Limit technical jargon.

If you use a word or acronym that the reader does not understand, what will he do? Scamper over to the dictionary and look it up? More likely, he will try to figure out the meaning from the context, and quietly resent the person who made him feel ignorant. If the reader guesses wrong, the writer’s meaning goes out the door.

 Avoid jargon. Identify acronyms the first time you use them. Consider your reader before making word choices. Write for your reader!

  1. 3.Maintain an average sentence length of 20 words per sentence, as measured by MS Word’s Check Readability Statistics function.

Long sentences are hard to follow. When sentences are longer than 20 words, the reader’s brain gets tired. Of course, a smart reader can decipher even a gargantuan sentence, but he will probably have to read it several times. This takes up precious time and mental bandwidth that your workers can’t afford to spare.

  1. Re-read every document at least once before you send it.

How do you feel when you receive a document full of typos, grammar errors, punctuation errors, and the occasional misspelled name? Does it raise or lower your opinion of the writer?

When you are the reader, you know that you think less of a writer who didn’t proofread. Yet in the heat of the moment, you may say to yourself, “I don’t need to proofread. I don’t have time to proofread. I’m sure it’s fine,” and send an email or document whose contents you will live to regret. Remember the old saying: Whatever is worth doing, is worth doing right. Force yourself to re-read before you send.

Communication was once considered a “soft skill” --  nice to have, but not a core competency. In today’s interconnected world, however, communication is the electric current that keeps your business alive. If that current gets interrupted, your systems break down.

 Need customers to understand your product? Need employees to understand their tasks? Need your coworkers to know what you need? Communication is what will get you results. 

©2017 Elizabeth Danziger

Worktalk Communications Consulting delivers customized writing training, email effectiveness workshops, and individual coaching that measurably increase writing results. For information on the Worktalkprograms, go to worktalk.com or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

* Miscommunication included actions or errors of omission by employees who have misunderstood or were misinformed about company policies, business processes, job function or a combination of the three.

Costs of Poor Writing: Wasted Time

Lost time is never found.

 

  • Have you ever read something that was so muddled, you had to read it three times before you understood it?
  • Have you ever received a long rambling email and spent ten minutes trying to figure out what the point of it was?
  • Have you ever received a letter or email composed of a solid block of text and decided, “Forget it! I’m not reading it”?

In all these cases, the writers contributed to one of main costs of poor writing: wasted time. When people write garbled, rambling, dense documents, they force their readers to spend unnecessary time decoding their messages.  Poor writing wastes time.

In the Worktalk trainings, we teach several tools that allow readers to use their time effectively:

Know your point before you start.

                We’ve all had the experience of slogging through a long email and finally seeing the writer’s “aha” moment --- the moment when the writer realized her own main point. There’s nothing wrong with taking a while to figure out what your main point is – just don’t drag your reader through your mental discovery process.

In reading the writing samples of hundreds of business writers, I have also seen cases when the writer never did seem to figure out his own point; he just threw a bunch of points on the page and let the reader figure out what was important. Here’s an example:

Dear Mr. Ritz,

                Downs High School is at the corner of Polk Street and Downs Avenue. I remember it well from my days a student there so long ago. The senior citizens park adjoining the school is also so lovely.  The senior center is leased to Jonesville School District, I believe.

                Someone has reported that the benches in the senior center need to be repaired. We don’t have the current lease agreements, although we do have a site map and some notes from a meeting discussing the leases from many years ago.

                Any information you can send would be most appreciated.

The point is that the writer needs the reader to send him the current lease agreements before the district can repair the benches. However, he did not make his request.

Before you start to write, take a moment and say or write, “What I really want my reader to know/do is…” That way you do not make your reader stop and think about what he is supposed to do. He will read your document once and understand your message.

Put your main point first, in most cases.

If the main point is buried in the middle of a document or email, your reader is likely to overlook it. People are paying most attention at the beginning and at the end of documents

The main point generally belongs at the top of your document.

If your main point is positive or neutral, remember the acronym BLUP: Bottom Line Up Front.

Putting your main point at the top enables the reader to just read that and then decide how much of the remainder to read.

Break up the page with plenty of white space.

What’s your reaction to a long block of text?

If your impulse is to skip that document or email and move onto something that looks friendlier, you are not alone. That is what most readers do.

It takes longer to read a dense block of text than it does to read a series of three- to four-line paragraphs separated by beautiful white space. White space rests the eye. It enables readers to read, blink, look up briefly, look down, and be able to find their place. You could put the winning Powerball numbers in the middle of a dense block of text and be confident that no one would claim the prize.

Break up the page with moderate-sized paragraphs so that your document takes less time to read.

Using these three simple tools will save your readers time:

  • Know your point before you start.
  • Make the point early in the text
  • Keep the format friendly.

The Worktalk writing trainings enable organizations to save time, reduce miscommunication, and avoid negative branding caused by poor writing. Contact Elizabeth Danziger at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to learn more about our customized programs. Visit www.worktalk.com for more information.

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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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