Words of war

Inadvertently listening to a conversation
Inadvertently listening to a conversation

I was listening to a loud conversation the other day. I hesitate to say that it was in a café because a number of people have commented recently that rather nice cafés seem to be where I spend most of my time, and have asked if I ever actually write.

When you’re a sociable sort of bloke who enjoys the buzz of a busy inner city java-joint, writing for endless hours alone often calls for a contrasting environment to refresh and revitalise the brain. An hour’s break to contemplate humanity, or interact socially, soon fires up the neurons for another session at the keyboard. It’s simply a matter of balance.

But let’s get back to that conversation. A rather smartly dressed young man was complaining to his comrades that he’d spent hours crafting an email to a web development company, explaining to them exactly why he was unhappy with their service.

Choose your words carefully
Choose your words carefully

“I wanted them to get the message in one email, so I chose my words carefully,” he said. “I covered every aspect of the problem in detail, and I even had my girlfriend read it so that I got it right. And then I get an email back from them full of advice and proposals, but none of it had anything to do with my issue. It’s as if they never even read the email I sent!”

That certainly struck a chord with me. In fact, much the same happened with one of my emails a couple of years ago. Fortunately I knew the addressee rather well, and was able to sit down and have a heart-to-heart to find out what went wrong.

“It’s too much,” he told me. “Every day I get emails that I don’t have time to read, never mind fully absorb. I end up just scanning through them to get the gist and hope I get it right.”

“And if you don’t …?”

He shrugged miserably. I lose customers, get stressed, and end up speed reading even faster because I feel panicked.”

That’s an extreme example of a very common phenomenon. We simply don’t make the time to read properly. Add the fact that the material we’re reading is often poorly written and it’s no wonder we’re confused and end up wasting more time unravelling meaning and getting even more stressed.

Excuse me, sire, did you actually read it?
Excuse me, sire, did you actually read it?

Combine bad writing with hasty reading and things can get nasty. There’s an urban myth about a letter sent to an emissary in a volatile nation that was read as a direct insult. The unintended affront was caused by the smeared remains of a tiny insect on the paper creating a phantom comma in the wrong place in the opening sentence. If the letter’s recipient had read the entire missive properly he would have understood the error, instead of commencing retaliatory hostilities and dispensing with a few lives.

Ghost writing is often about disentangling a few obscure ideas mixed with random thoughts, and that’s one of the great challenges of the job. However, if I’m in doubt, it saves a lot of everyone’s time if I just ask the client what they mean, instead of making assumptions. Well, we wouldn’t want to start a war, would we?

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4 Responses

  1. Well, I had a similar experience this week. I rang a web company to find out what to do to change the DNS on a domain name. “Log a job” they said. I did that. I was very clear and to the point.

    After five job updates and numerous phone calls they had still not done it. No one bothered to read the email in full.

    What cracks me up is that they call their hosting system “Mission Control”…Well Huston, you have a bleeping problem!

  2. Wouldn’t it save so much of everyone’s time if people just read things properly.

  3. I had an experience like this too. Emailed an online printer using the ‘contact’ page on their website, asking for details of their POD service (I happened to mention I was a graphic designer specialising in book design). No answer. So I tried the fax number. No answer for 2 weeks. Then I received an email telling me their fax service had been down for 2 weeks, and giving me their terms for graphic designers. Huh? I replied, politely pointing out that I wasn’t looking for design work from them, but wanted details of THEIR services for my existing clients. They at least had the grace to be embarrassed.

    1. The mind boggles when you consider how many opportunities to provide services and earn money are lost this way.

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