In January last year, a close friend got in touch to say she’d received an email that made her think of me. This friend knows I’m interested in the importance of strong, clear and accurate communication, so when she received an email from a recruitment agent about potential candidates for a sales role in her business, she forwarded it to me. The email reads in part:
"The one that most fits your beief is Ted.He presents in aprofessional manner. He has worked in the Software sales arena for a number of years .He has held management and business bdevelopment positions .
Ted was also instrumental in setting up a small business and understands the strengths nad limitations of doing business.
He builds great relationships which he uses to sell. The is strategic in the way he manages the business and has a very calm demeanour.
Ted needs to give two weeks notice"
I’ve changed the name and industry to protect privacy, but this is otherwise copied and pasted verbatim. My friend was astonished at the number of errors: five glaring typos, four misplaced full stops, one misplaced capital letter, incorrect paragraph marks and questionable grammar. All of this in 86 words. It’s probably worth noting that English is the first language of the writer.
My friend had already been unhappy with the recruitment agent’s services, and I assumed this email would end the relationship.
When she told me she was going ahead and interviewing three of the proposed candidates, I was surprised. ‘Didn’t that email tell you all you need to know?’ I sighed.
We all make decisions about doing business with people based on the way they write.
The University of Alabama undertook a comprehensive study on this topic. Hundreds of senior business professionals were given written samples and asked to make an assessment on the writer’s credibility, not just on their writing ability but also on other characteristics important in business. The findings are revealing.
Writers who made mistakes were branded hasty, uninformed, careless (“lazy”) and uncaring (“if you can’t be bothered to check your work, your work can’t be that important to you, so why should I care about you and your business?”). Errors in sentence structure were interpreted as the writer having faulty, disorganised thinking. Typos suggested the writer was not detail-oriented (“you might overlook other, more important, details of your job”). Some other labels included “poorly educated”, “sarcastic” or “pretentious” or “aggressive” (usually these arose from writing tone, misuse of capitals, or misuse of quotation marks). The overwhelming response was that not only did bad writing reflect negatively on an individual, it also damaged the reputation of the company that employed the person.
Going against her initial instinct that encouraged her to forward me the email in the first place, my friend interviewed three candidates proposed by the recruitment agent and chose one. She really liked the person they employed – the candidate seemed smart, professional, and capable.
But cracks appeared within the first three days. This newly appointed sales rep refused to fly interstate (a specific line in the job description), refused to answer the phone (this is a sales rep), and later started verbally abusing other staff members.
It turns out the recruitment agent – the same one who had more than a dozen errors in a short piece of writing – had forgotten or not bothered to do the basic reference checks that would have flagged these behavioural issues.
I never reminded my friend about our email exchange until last week when I asked her permission to include this email excerpt. Needless to say, for months her days and headspace were overwhelmed with managing out a troublesome staff member, trying to fill the gaping hole in the business left by a dysfunctional sales rep, placating other staff, and going through the costly and time-consuming process of finding a replacement.
We often need to make business decisions based on small cues or gut instincts, and it’s important to remember that the way you write, and the way your people write, speaks loudly about the way you do business.