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Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Do Little Things Matter? And Avionic Flu . . .

In professional settings, how much does spelling count? How about typeface? How about good writing generally? And you'll want to read up on "avionic" flu.

Do little things matter? Here are three scenarios. (Bear in mind that I worked as a speech writer and taught writing in the Ivy League, so I might be overly demanding.)

Scenario 1

Let's say you're a senior officer of some sort in a corporation of reasonable size, or perhaps an elected official in a small city that is trying to look like it belongs in the 21st Century. Let's say your success will be greatly affected by how seriously people take you, and that, in turn, will largely be a product of the quality and professionalism of the communication your organization produces.

How troubled would you be by internal memos from senior staff, transacting official business, which are printed in an informal, even playful, almost cursive typeface? (Assume the memos are or may be available to the public, and are part of the organization's official record.) Would you:

  1. return the memo to the sender, requesting that they re-send it in a typeface a professional might use, at which point you'll be willing to read it?
  2. accept it this time, but speak to the senior staffer who produced it, and strongly urge him or her to produce professional-looking documents in the future?
  3. institute a policy that silly typefaces are not to be installed on organization computers?
  4. do nothing, because there's no sense fighting small battles when big ones loom?
  5. fail to see the problem?

(1 is not very kind, but sorely tempting. 2 is probably best. 3 is probably overkill, makes too much extra work for somebody, and ignores the fact that sometimes a silly typeface is exactly right. 4 and 5 are familiar enough but make me question your professionalism.)

Scenario 2

What if there were a spelling mistake on an otherwise acceptable document submitted for official approval? Say that "chief" in "Chief Financial Officer," "Chief Executive Officer," and "Chief Technical Officer" was misspelled "cheif." Would you:

  1. vote to disapprove the document because of the error?
  2. make a scene in the meeting, to embarrass the staffer who made the mistake?
  3. move that the document be approved, subject to correction of the spelling error?
  4. say nothing, because it's only spelling?
  5. fail to see the problem?

(1 is probably overkill. 2 is unkind. 3 makes good sense to me. 4 and 5, again, are familiar, but make me question your professionalism.)

Scenario 3

Suppose an internal employee Web site had a poorly-written lead article by a senior official on its home page, perhaps beginning with a long sentence of very informal, dubiously grammatical, mostly irrelevant chatter. The rest could be a masterpiece -- or it could be saccharine, inspirational Internet spam -- but serious readers would never know, having turned their attention to other things before the first sentence finally petered out. Would you:

  1. decide that it's time to pay some serious attention to public communication skills in your organization, because putting out documents people won't read is bad, and putting out documents which embarrass you when intelligent people read them is worse?
  2. reason that it's only _____________ (insert the appropriate noun or proper noun here), so few will notice and fewer still will care, and let things go on this way indefinitely?
  3. fail to see the problem?
  4. declare that bad writing is actually better for your audience, because some of them will be put off by the appearance of professionalism? (There's a pronounced tendency in more cultures than just our own to equate the striving for excellence with arrogance and condescension, even if the striver is quite humble and meek.)

(1 is for serious professionals who want to be taken seriously. 2, 3, and 4 ought to be unacceptable in executive-level leadership -- or, if you ask me, anytime someone speaks for or to a respectable organization. I've seen a lot of 3, and I don't know how to fix it. 2 and 4 disrespect the audience and can be infuriating, but I've heard them defended repeatedly, to my astonishment, by people who thought I should take them seriously.)

So I ask again: Do little things matter? Are these little things?

On the lighter side, sometimes linguistic flubs are just funny. A local talk show host this week expressed his concern for a possible pandemic (a panic word, try epidemic instead) of "avionic flu."

Avionic flu? That really would be bad. Imagine that you're a passenger on a modern jetliner, dozing innocently at 38,000 feet while you hurtle through the air at over 500 mph. Then the avionics (the navigation, safety, and most other electronic systems in the aircraft) come down with a bad case of avionic flu, spread by radio signals or navigation beacons, or by pilots, maintenance workers, or passengers who didn't wash their hands properly after touching the previous aircraft. (Can avionic flu be spread by casual contact?) You'll definitely come back to earth, and so will your ailing aircraft, but perhaps not precisely how or where or as gently as you intended. Avionic flu could kill you.

Okay, okay, I know. He meant avian flu, and, besides that, it's awfully hard to proofread the spoken word before it's spoken. But it was fun while it lasted.

David Rodeback comments (3/15/06):

I have a certain amount of empathy over the avionic flu thing. Immediately after I uploaded this post, I had to correct no less than three instances where I had accidentally typed "avoinic." Argh. We all make mistakes. It's just that some of us care, and some don't.

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