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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..

 

Apologize and Be Forgiven

What does it cost when we refuse to apologize for what we have done? What can we gain when we take ownership of our actions and sincerely communicate with customers?
 
When Stuart Jenkins paid for a stateroom on a well-known cruise line, he expected a fabulous experience. However, the air conditioner in an adjoining room malfunctioned, and the Jenkinses had water all over their stateroom floor. They complained and were given a $100 onboard voucher for their trouble; they did not feel this was sufficient. When Stuart returned, he wrote to the president of the cruise line to complain.

An assistant to the president wrote the following: “We understand that you feel your stateroom was in need of refurbishing, particularly with regard to the leak from the adjacent AC/HVAC room wetting the carpet, and we apologize for your displeasure.”

How do you think this went over with Stuart? It does not say that the stateroom needed refurbishing; it says “we understand that you feel the stateroom needed refurbishing.” It does not apologize for the water on the floor. It apologizes for the reader’s displeasure, whatever that means. In short, it blames Stuart for being such an oversensitive baby and does not take ownership of the company’s errors.

When Stuart received this letter, do you think he was mollified? Do you think he will book with this cruise line again? What will he tell his friends about this company’s brand? Nothing good. And if Stuart knows anything about using social media to publicize letters received from big corporations, watch out.
 

Would a Sincere Apology Have Made a Difference?

Imagine an alternative letter, in which the company spokesman wrote, “We apologize for the water on your stateroom floor. That must have been very distressing. We have taken steps to ensure that if such a thing happens again, a guest would be moved if an alternative room was available. While we are unable to offer you more than the $100 voucher  in the way of cash, we can offer you a 10% discount on a future booking.”
Would such a letter have put out the fire in Stuart’s heart? Maybe it would. It would certainly go farther in soothing him that having the cruise line apologize for his “displeasure.”
 

What If an Apology Might Backfire?

The cruise line’s response to Stuart was classic CYA communication. They did not want Stuart to sue them or demand more compensation than they were willing to give. The fear that a reader might latch onto an apology and claw at your throat is sometimes valid. I suggest you seek legal counsel if you think that you are in such a situation.
 

Tips for Writing an Effective Apology

  • When you apologize, apologize for what you did. Take responsibility for what happened if you are responsible for it.  
  • Empathize with the other person’s distress.Don’t hide out in roundabout phrases and bluster.  You can do this even if you did not do anything wrong, as you are probably sorry that the person is upset.
  • Focus on solutions. Get your reader out of the past and into the future as quickly as you can. 

Apologize and Be Forgiven

A proverb says, "What comes from the heart enters the heart." Most people are willing to forgive almost anything if they receive a sincere apology that takes responsibility for the error committed. If you feel your reader will be litigious, you do have to be careful. However, most people just want to be heard, respected, and provided with a reasonable solution.

Thank heaven for their forgiving spirit and bring it to life with an honest, sincere apology when things go wrong.
 
 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 
Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our writing trainings are geared to 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..
 
 

 

The $30 Million Revision

Twenty minutes into the presentation, the panel was visibly irritated.  After another thirty minutes, the panel chair said, "Let's pretend this meeting never happened. Redo your presentation and come back in four weeks." 

 They met with the consultant, who helped them think about the presentation from the panel’s perspective. They reworked the presentation so that it communicated more effectively. They simplified their slides so that there was just one point per slide. Most importantly, they stopped to consider the review from the panel’s perspective. What did the panel want to know? These reviewers were not interested in the technical information; they needed answers about funding, reliability, and the political climate.
 
After this revision, the contractor presented again. They passed the review. They also got $30 million more than they had initially requested.
 

Communication Leads to Results

In the first presentation, the contractor did not communicate with the panel. Communication is a two-way street. If the receiver doesn’t get it, we don’t achieve our goal. Giving too much information can actually cloud communication, as the contractor learned.
 
In the second presentation, the contractor did communicate. The result? Approval of the project plus $30 million more in funding than they expected.

When we learn to communicate, we tap into enormous resources, create strong relationships, and generate major opportunities.

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 
Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our writing trainings are geared to 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..
 
 

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

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  • 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.
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