The Forgotten Path to Success: Write It Right!

It happens in every generation, I guess … older folks being critical of the up-and-comers over what they do and how they do it. My mother would snap at us whenever we used a word incorrectly, even in casual conversation. “Lay” vs. “lie” was one. And “May I?” vs. “Can I?”. If I sent her a scribbled note from college and wrote “It’s” (the contraction, with an apostrophe) when it should have been “Its” (the possessive, with no apostrophe), believe me, I heard about it!

Twenty years ago, Honolulu had two pretty decent daily newspapers. We complained about them at the time, of course, but they were really quite good compared to what we have now — a combined paper in tabloid format, garish and haphazard in design and mostly superficial in its coverage. The quality of writing seems to be deteriorating, and not just in journalism. At least reporters are working with deadlines and often have to write under real pressure.

But what’s the excuse for bad writing in advertising copy? Southwest Airlines has a TV spot running in which they tout their low fares. We see passengers reacting with delight when handed a little plastic cup of juice and or a packet of nuts while a chirpy female voice-over says

“… because low fares should never mean low service.”

Low service? Really? Not poor service or crappy service … but low service? I can’t erase the image of a flight attendant serving drinks on a tray table that’s down between my feet on the floor.

When I was still running my ad agency in Honolulu, I was frequently asked to speak to some of the marketing classes at the University of Hawaii. On one occasion, thinking it would be helpful, I used the opportunity to talk about some of the resumés I had recently received at my office … noting that some had arrived with typos, some with grammatical errors or misspellings, and one with the return address painted over with white-out and a new address scribbled in with pencil.

I told the kids that the first thing I did when receiving a resumé was to proofread it. And, I said, if there were any mistakes, I immediately trashed it. After all, if my advertising agency produced and placed an ad on behalf of a client and inadvertently switched a couple of digits in their phone number, the client wouldn’t pay for the ad and the agency would be stuck for the cost. Mistakes are important. They damage your professional reputation and they cost money. And, in the case of job applicants, they send the message that you’re either poorly trained, poorly educated, or careless. Maybe all three.

Several of the students seemed stunned at that. But one was outraged and indignant … said he thought I was being harsh and unfair. That was a dozen years ago and I do wonder what became of that particular kid. Come to think of it, he could very well be writing ad copy for Southwest Airlines.

Like it or not, grammar is important. So is spelling. Effective communication means using words correctly and in the right context. The fast track to success today is being able to write letters and memos and even emails that are clear, concise and grammatically correct. People who can do that stand out from all the others. They get the jobs; they make the sales; they get promoted. Because everyone thinks they’re smart.