Accuracy counts as mistakes cost £millions

Spelling mistake on billboard

A single mistake makes a world of difference.

Yesterday the BBC website featured a story that put a smile on the faces of all of us involved in business writing, as the headline screamed “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in online sales“.

It’s what many of us have been saying for years, and so it’s quite gratifying to have the importance of accuracy expressed in terms that business people can understand. If you’re sloppy with your copy, it’ll hit you where it hurts. In the bank balance.

Admittedly the article itself presents a slightly less convincing case in terms of empirical evidence than the headline suggests, but that’s not the point.

Accuracy counts

The point is, accuracy counts. And we have now got your attention.

As a business writer and plain English specialist who trains business people how to write more effectively, I am passionate about accuracy, in spelling, punctuation and correct usage. I’m not a pedant, but I value the correct use of the language I love, and I recognise how powerful it can be to communicate ideas quickly and easily when it is used properly.

What angers me is when people don’t think accuracy is important. When they shrug off spelling mistakes and take a weird kind of pride in the fact that they can’t use an apostrophe correctly.

“Because, at teh end of the day, as long as people understand what your saying, whats the problem?”

That’s something such people might write, and leave uncorrected, or not even realise there’s anything wrong with it.

But there is, and it’s hugely important!

Why?

Accurate = professional

The point is of course, that if you are dealing with a business, you expect them to behave in a professional manner, and adhere to certain standards. You would expect, and no doubt often do receive a high standard of customer service from many businesses on the telephone. Indeed many companies spend tens of thousands of pounds to train their staff to perform to exacting standards, and even record and monitor calls to check performance.

But for some reason, businesses pay far less attention to the accuracy of their written communication. Always have done. In the past, they could perhaps get away with it when they sent out letters to customers – who reads letters anyway?

But now, with the prevalence of e-commerce, so many businesses rely almost entirely on written communication through their websites and emails to attract, interact with and retain their customers.

And they are starting to come unstuck.

Good.

It’s about time!

The BBC article quoted William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who said:

“when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

The fact is, customers are much more careful when transacting business online. They are wary of being caught by scams, identity theft, or security threats to their computers, so they tend to look for websites they can trust. Ones that look professional. If the home page of a site features spelling mistakes, consumers could be forgiven for thinking “Well, if they don’t care whether their own website is spelt correctly, how much are they going to care about looking after me?”.

And who can blame them?

We all make mistakes, but only some of us correct them

People make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of being human. No blame there. But there’s no excuse for not checking the accuracy of what’s been written and making corrections.

The entrepreneur in the article found that revenue on one of his sites doubled after a spelling mistake was corrected.

Sometimes it’s not because people can’t spell, or don’t care, but just lack of attention to detail.

Many years ago, a company I worked for came up with a new mission statement that they were keen to share with their customers and the general public. It was quite good, as mission statements go, but as soon as I saw it I realised that there was something seriously wrong with it. About halfway through it referred to offering “complimentary services”. What was meant of course was “complementary services” – services that would complement the company’s primary business offering. What they’d said though was “complimentary services”. As in free. Gratis. Not paid for.

Which was not what they meant at all. In fact, had the mission statement gone to press and been published on the website as it was intended to be, it would have at best been an embarrassing PR faux pas. At worst, the company could have ended up having to give away a lot of things for free.

I pointed out the error, and thankfully the crisis was averted. But it could have easily slipped through. And the reputation of the company would have suffered as a result.

You can’t guess in finance

Accuracy always counts in financial matters, so why not in writing? Can you imagine a senior management team presenting their annual report and accounts to their auditors with a note saying:

Some of the figures might be wrong, there’s a few decimal points in the wrong place and some of the calculations are a bit haphazard, but you get the general idea..”

Of course not! It would never wash. Which is why companies spend lots of money employing accountants and auditors – financial experts who are qualified to iron out any inaccuracies and ensure that everything is spot on.

Which brings me to my final point. As fellow writing professional Richard Hollins blogged yesterday, good copywriting is more than just spelling. We’ve established that spelling and correct punctuation is important, but let’s face it, those are just the basics. There’s far more to effective communication with customers than that. You need to engage them, enthuse them, excite them, entertain them even. And make sure you explain to them clearly why they need you and how you can help them.

Get professional help

It isn’t easy. Not everyone can do it. Which is why it’s a good idea to call in an expert to help you. Someone who spends all day, every day producing messages for a wide range of audiences that are pitched in just the right tone of voice, and use just the right words to attract, then keep their interest.

Someone who is a professional writer.

An accountant doesn’t  simply ensure that the figures are correct. They do much more than that. Clever financial things, with budgets and projections that help businesses plan for the future, manage their resources effectively, receive the maximum return on investments and make the best profits they can.

In the same way, a writer can do so much more than just ensure that your communications don’t contain mistakes. They can conjure magic with their words, transforming run-of-the-mill messaging into something compelling and persuasive. They can make your customers sit up and listen. Make them smile. Make them buy. Make them tell others how great you are. While you get on with doing what makes your business great in the first place.

Can you afford not to hire a copywriter or business writing professional?

It seems a lot of businesses think they can, and they’re not even getting the basics right.

Can you afford to lose customers?

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Words’ worth

Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth

Mmmm ...what rhymes with 'skinny hand'?

Someone called me that today at work. Well, via the gift of instant messenger to be more precise, as I was working from home today. It was meant as a compliment, and came from a colleague who has benefited from my wordsmithery, plain English, punctuation and spelling expertise on a number of occasions.

I liked it as a term of endearment, it’s not a bad nickname, and I’ve been called plenty worse in my time. As Romantic Poets go, I’m much more of a Coleridge man myself, although Wordsworth did apparently contribute to my favourite stanza of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner“, thus:

“I fear thee Ancient Mariner, I fear thy skinny hand/for thou art long and lank and brown, as is the ribbed sea sand.”

What are words worth?

But it got me to thinking. What are words worth? Do people value them? And if so, how highly?

This is a subject close to my heart at the moment. I’m currently on the cusp of transitioning from full-time employment as a writer into the wonderful world of freelance business writing. It’s a very exciting experience, if a little daunting, but I am sure it’s the right thing for me. However, it has forced me to do some serious thinking about what my words are worth, and to put a value on them. For the first time in my career I have had to look at my skills in a new way, been forced to recognise the true value of what I do and then put a price on it. It felt really weird to do that. Especially as you naturally need to charge more on a freelance basis than you would as an employee.

I’m a very good writer – so people tell me! I have a lot of experience and plenty of practice of writing across a whole range of styles for a host of different audiences on a variety of diverse topics. But I think I took those skills for granted and assumed that they weren’t out of the ordinary. Everyone can write, I thought. This is clearly not the case. The freelance writing community wouldn’t even exist if that was true of course.

What has been revelatory and very encouraging to me during the past week though, is that there are plenty of businesses, organisations and individuals who really value the expertise of professional writers and are prepared to invest in those skills. Thankfully there are plenty of people out there who are great at growing their businesses, but recognise that they need a little help with getting their message out to their customers and beyond. And that’s where we come in.

A community of talent

I say ‘we’, because something else I’ve been particularly conscious of and grateful for this week, is that I am not alone. There is a lively community of hugely talented, enthusiastic, creative  writers out there, doing fantastic work. Joining 26, an association of professional writers, has been a very positive experience for me and given me access to useful resources (cracking books on copywriting by John Simmons and Roger Horberry) as well as introducing me to some very helpful people (Tim Rich for starters). And taking the plunge into the Tweetosphere in the past week or so has made me very conscious of just how many like-minded, witty, creative souls are out there making their living through words. Today I stumbled across the tweetings of Clare Lynch (@goodcopybadcopy) and was excited to discover someone equally passionate about good quality, accurately written business copy with a sharp sense of humour.

So, some people really understand what words are worth and are prepared to pay a competitive price to secure the talent to write the copy they need to sell their products and services and engage and enlist their customers.

Cant spel, wont spel

But what about the ones who don’t really care? Who place little or no value on the accuracy of their writing, and seem to have no understanding of the effects that has on their corporate brand? More (April) Fool them. There seem to be a lot of people out there, and a surprising number of them in the corporate world, who think that proper spelling and correct usage of punctuation is unimportant (it almost killed me to put that heading in). Their argument tends to be that nobody worries about that sort of thing these days, apart from the pedants or the syntactically obsessed.

Rubbish.

Customers’ expectations of service standards have never been higher – most consider great service a basic human right – and they have never had more channels to vent their collective spleen if they are treated badly. Most businesses would never dream of taking a half-hearted approach to their product range, delivery systems or even the telephone skills of their customer service staff, so why are written communications not treated with as much care?

Whilst there’s little empirical evidence to suggest that customers are leaving a company or supplier in their droves because of a spelling mistake or a misplaced apostrophe, a consistent lack of attention to detail in corporate communications will definitely have a long-term impact. We are not yet a nation of complainers, and we do tend to have a lot of patience with poor service, but surely it’s not just the professionals amongst us who wince when they see  a badly spelled, mistake-ridden website, email, leaflet or brochure.

What’s your reputation worth?

Accuracy costs nothing. Apart from a little time, care, and possibly a few quid judiciously spent on employing a professional to supply just the right words. However, consistent inaccuracy as a result of disdain for correctly punctuated, well presented English could cost a brand their reputation. I surely can’t be the only consumer out there who thinks “if they can’t get a few sentences of text right, what chance have they got of providing a high quality service?”.

I’m proud to be a ‘Wordsworth’. I appreciate the beauty and the power of words, and understand their impact. And I care enough to use them properly.

I’d sum up my thinking on this subject as follows:

They say: “I never know where to put an apostrophe, so I don’t bother. Who cares if I get it wrong?”. I say: “I’m the same with decimal points. My day rate is £25000.00.”

What do you think? Do you care? Does accuracy matter in the age of txt-spk?

Answers in a comments box please ……

Heading for success

Grab their attention with a clever headline

There’s a lot to be said for a great heading, a snappy title or an eye-catching headline.

It just gets things off to a really good start. It can even lure in an unsuspecting reader who may otherwise never have ventured near the text written beneath it.

A clever, punchy or witty heading can liven up even the most pedestrian paragraph – not that you should ever settle for such a state of affairs of course.

Grabbing attention

Quite often we can get so carried away with producing vast swathes of copy that we neglect the sheer impact a carefully chosen sub-heading or title can have on our readers. It’s the written equivalent of a cheery wave, or a sudden shout from an unexpected source: “Hiya – you’ll never guess what…” It grabs your attention, forces you to take notice, and intrigues you to read on.

I was faced with this kind of challenge to liven up proceedings when designing and delivering a two-day training course on effective business writing. Day one covered the basics, including a brief refresher on proper use of grammar and punctuation, and the principles of writing in plain English. The purpose of the course was to equip customer service staff within the Internet industry to write clear, concise emails that met their customers’ needs without baffling them with technical jargon. A tall order you might say, and not on the face of it the most thrilling of topics to teach, or to learn for that matter.

Colonic irritation and apostrophe catastrophes

Well, it wasn’t my only weapon of choice – I employed humour, anecdotes and real gaffes to good effect as well – but I did throw a few carefully chosen headings into the mix to liven up the timetable and get people to focus on the PowerPoint slides.  The session on commas, full stops etc was punctuated (ouch) by headings such as ‘Colonic irritation’ and The Apostrophe Catastrophe’, and the exercise that highlighted the confusion caused by words that sound the same but are spelled differently was entitled ‘The principle principal and how its effects affect us’.

I saved my personal favourite for the last session of the day, as attention was naturally flagging a little by then. It covered why writing an email has to be approached differently from writing a letter, and the pitfalls you can face if you don’t take sufficient care over language, tone and style. Only one title could cover those nuances in an interesting way: ‘The email of the species is deadlier than the mail’.

Day two was a bit more interesting, and far more interactive, as people were tasked with putting their learning into practice and writing engaging, grammatically accurate and perfectly plain English emails. There was not quite so much need for livening up, but I did allow myself the indulgence of ‘Rebel without a clause’ for the session on why it’s sometimes OK to break the ‘golden rules of Grammar’ we learned at school.

Headline news

Similarly a news story or press release can be significantly improved and enlivened by a carefully crafted headline. I’ve not been able to get away with very many in the day job, but I have certainly noticed the effects of a good headline when writing articles for my music blog – How Life Should Sound. When writing a piece about the music streaming service Spotify, I plumped for the controversial heading ‘Is Spotify really killing music … already?’ My article refuted that assertion completely, but using such a provocative statement paid off. It’s still my most read and most searched for article on that blog.

My all-time favourite newspaper headline will take some beating. After John Barnes proved his managerial ineptitude when presiding over Celtic’s Scottish Cup defeat to lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle, some genius hack or sub-editor had the presence of mind to crown the occasion with the utterly majestic:

“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”

To adapt MasterChef’s Greg Wallace: “Headlines don’t get better than this.”