Merge's Blog

The bottom-line impact of poor writing

HelenWilkieI’ve said it before – People judge you based on your writing skills. Turns out it isn’t just your character that is at stake, it’s also the bottom line profitability of your organization! Today I am fortunate to have my colleague Helen Wilkie guesting on the blog, writing about the connection between poor writing skills and lost profitability. Helen is a speaker and author of six books about communication at work, and I’m delighted that she’s agreed to share some of her insights with us today on the blog.

Employees’ writing skills — or the lack of them — affect the bottom line in ways you may never have considered. Here are just a few.

  • Badly written instructions can lead to incorrect procedures, lost time, damaged equipment, lost customers — and lost profit.
  • Ineffective email messages, which often took too long to write in the first place, can create a poor company image, wasted time, bad customer or supplier relations, lost customers — and lost profit.
  • Interdepartmental miscommunication — often through incomprehensible e-mail exchanges — can lead to fragmentation of the workforce, loss of corporate loyalty, missed collaboration opportunities, possibly lost employees resulting in more recruitment and training costs — and lost profit.
  • Cold, impersonal “boilerplate” letters in response to customers’ problems or complaints can lead to loss of those customers, bad news spread to their friends and colleagues, loss of present and future income — and lost profit.

Mangled syntax and incorrect punctuation can cause expensive confusion, inconvenience or even danger. Here are just a few examples.

  • A consultant’s proposal for a new benefits package for his corporate client read, “By paying a 5% premium on wages, all employees will be enrolled in the company insurance program.” Who was supposed to pay the 5%? According to this sentence, the employees would pay — but in fact the company was to pay. It should have read, “By paying a premium of 5% of wages, the company can enroll all employees in its insurance program.” A big difference — and potentially a deal breaker.
  • A passenger broke into the flight deck on a commercial airplane. Subsequent investigation revealed that written regulations said, “The doors to the flight deck must be locked only on takeoff and landing.” What exactly does that mean? Must they be unlocked at other times? Or are they simply permitted to be unlocked at other times? Misinterpretation of this ambiguous message almost resulted in disaster.
  • A company tried to cancel a contract, believing it could do so under current conditions. The other party contested the cancellation, and because of the incorrect placement of a comma in the agreement, successfully sued the company for $1.2 million. The judge ruled on what the agreement actually said, rather on what the lawyer had intended it to say.

Writing is often mistakenly considered a “soft skill”, but when done badly it can cost your organization cold, hard cash.

So what has been your experience? Have you ever sent out a poorly-worded missive that has come back to bite you? Or have you been on the receiving end of poor written communication? Please share your anecdotes, good or bad.

Helen Wilkie is a professional keynote speaker, workshop leader and author of six books on communication at work. Find out more about Helen and her work at her website:

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