Veteran business writing teacher, Rudolph Flesch, used to tell this story:
Each year, he and his wife would exchange presents with some old friends. One year, the Flesches subscribed in the name of their friends to a magazine they knew they would like to read. The couple duly received a card notifying them that a gift subscription in their favor had been entered.
A month or two later, the intended recipients mentioned, with much embarrassment, that no magazines had arrived. Flesch got on to the phone immediately.
A lady listened politely and promised to attend to the matter right away. But many more phone calls were to be made, and many strongly worded letters written, including one to the Better Business Bureau, before the first issue arrived in the mailbox - almost a year later!
After all that, the company wrote the Flesches a letter of apology. But how did they begin their letter, after all those months of intense embarrassment and aggravation?
"Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience you have encountered with your gift subscription. "
Flesch points out that the word “inconvenience", as the dictionaries define it, suggests little more than a temporary or slight disturbance or annoyance, as in: “I hope the new arrangement will not inconvenience you. "
"Perhaps it's only human nature, " he philosophizes, “that whatever happens to me is to be taken with the utmost gravity; but whatever happens to you - even if it's my fault - is never more than an inconvenience; just a slight spot of bother, hardly worth mentioning. "
Why do I say over this story - apart from what it teaches us about customer service?
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I'm a fairly experienced writer, but I have to confess that, from time to time, people misunderstand what I'm trying to say in a written communication. Often, this happens because of the difficulty in conveying the nuances of speech in writing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the modern e-mail message.
Perhaps, the very convenience of the e-mail medium, the ease and speed with which I can dash off and transmit messages, is part of the problem. Were I an “old-fashioned" executive who dictated something to my secretary for typing, I would probably go over it carefully again when she would present her handiwork to me for signing.
But more often than not, all the frustration could have been avoided, had I taken a few more seconds to read my message over again before clicking on the send button.
Even more so, had I tried harder to put myself in the shoes of the people who would be reading it.
I'm all for informality in writing. As I've pointed out in other articles, I'm in favor of writing the way you speak - as if the recipient were sitting on the other side of your desk. When writing, I always try to distance myself from the nervous habits and inhibitions that my school teachers, bless ‘em, tried to bequeath to me.
But informality should never be at the expense of clarity. When you're distributing messages to a mass audience, this becomes even more critical.
Don't sink the ship all for the sake of a single word!
Azriel Winnett is the creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular website helps you to improve your communication and relationship skills on all levels, in business and professional life, in the family unit, and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.