“I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

– Marquis de Favras, on being handed the warrant for his execution

When people first see your TV commercial, your sales letter, your email, or your website, within about six seconds they will reach an irrevocable conclusion about your company, your products and your service.

If your message isn’t clean and clear, if your grammar isn’t ‘proper’, and if your text looks like someone with the shakes has just opened a fresh can of apostrophes over it, potential customers will notice, will react, and it will cost you sales.

But unless these costs are quantified, there’s really no incentive for business owners to demand good, clean, professional writing in their marketing materials.

Well, you’re in luck. Here’s the damage report. And it’s quite surprising:

A spelling error reduced sales by 44%

Charles Duncombe, CEO of a $20 million-per-year online retail group, wondered why his online hosiery site was underperforming.

On investigation, he discovered a spelling mistake in a prominent line on a product page, where the word ‘Tights’ was spelt ‘Tihgts’. When the mistake was fixed conversion rates jumped 80%.

A missing apostrophe reduced response by 75%

When a customer is deciding whether or not to respond to your advertising, they’re evaluating what kind of a relationship they can expect to have with your company.

Do you sell quality products? Will you deliver on time and back up your guarantee? Will you be easy to deal with? Are you reliable or unreliable? Detailed or sloppy? Careful or careless?

In short, all customers are looking for a relationship. Therefore it’s important not to turn up for the first date with bad breath, dirty fingernails, and stains on your shirt.

OkTrends, the research arm of OkCupid, analysed over half a million first contacts on their dating website, looking at keywords and phrases and how they affect response rates.

Of course, the usual suspects cropped up – netspeak words including ur for your/you’re, for are, ya for you – and had the expected negative impact on response rates.

More interestingly, messages which included one silly, simple punctuation mistake – writing cant instead of can’t – slashed the response rate from 32% to just 8%. That’s a catastrophic 75% drop in response!

Conversely, writing the words don’t and won’t with apostrophes correctly placed, actually pushed response rates up from the average of 32%, to 36% and 38%, respectively.

This is important because the survey analysed over 500,000 responses from consenting, purchasing adults. Which is statistically significant in anyone’s book.

Your customers would be well represented in a research survey with a universe of over half a million.

Write like a fraud, be treated like one

On social media sites the rules are relaxed and mistakes and mix-ups in writing are tolerated, forgiven, and in many cases, enjoyed. But in marketing communications – emails, web pages, print ads and TV commercials  – spelling mistakes and bad grammar are not only a hurdle to clear communication, they instantly raise questions of trust and credibility.

Think about it. How do you identify spam or phishing emails, and bogus web pages? Most of us figure out something’s fishy (and the email isn’t really from the bank) by the way it is written: clumsy, unprofessional, containing spelling and punctuation mistakes and grammatical errors.

After a few years of conditioning, the bullshit alarm goes off instinctively.

Now, if you show people a TV commercial, email or web page that employs suboptimal writing with clumsy phrasing and poor punctuation, instantly, doubt is triggered. The kind of doubt that kills sales.

William Dutton, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute agrees: “When a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelled word could be a killer issue.”

So, if you want people to question the veracity of the information you’re giving them, simply throw in a spelling or punctuation mistake, or a clunky phrase. As a bonus, they’ll also question the credibility of your product, your offer, and your company.

Dosent matter. No one will notise

Many business owners think spelling, punctuation and grammar don’t matter, that the market won’t notice mistakes, and even if it does, it will forgive them.

The truth is, the values and qualities that affect personal relationships also impact commercial relationships. The market does notice. And, as the statistics above show, the market punishes sloppy and mistake-ridden writing accordingly.

In short, anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter is either blissfully ignorant of the leads and sales they’re losing, or they’re allowing their own indifference or poor language skills to override sound commercial practice.

By the way, did you spot all three mistakes in the heading to this section?

Bloody apostrophes!

People who have problems with apostrophes tend to over-use them rather than under-use them. So, if you aren’t entirely clear when and where to use apostrophes, the logical thing to do is to stop using them!

Tape over the apostrophe key. Cut off your right ring finger. I don’t care. The apostrophe is not your friend.

Simply by not using apostrophes, you will increase the correctness of your English.

TIP: If you make yourself a promise to only ever use an apostrophe when shortening two words into one – can not into can’t, will not into won’t, etc. – and to never use an apostrophe for anything else, ESPECIALLY NEVER FOR PLURALS, your overall use of apostrophes will be correct more than 95% of the time. Which is pretty good going in anyone’s language.

Of course, you’re going to have to promise to never, ever attempt the word ‘fo’c’s’le’.

Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

For too long, dyslexics and dysgraphics have faced their remarkably difficult struggle alone, with little help from educators, and little understanding from the world at large.

However, an Intelligent Contextual Spell Checker called Ghotit uses some very cunningly designed algorithms (which leave ordinary spell checkers for dead) to make a profound difference to a dyslexic’s ability to communicate clearly and effectively in writing.

Ghotit is designed by dyslexics. Available for Windows, Mac OS and Android. Absolutely brilliant!

English as a second language

If English is not your first language, but business or education requires you to have a proficiency in written English, you simply must try Ghotit. Although it was developed to help dyslexics, it is great for ESL students and business people.

You can take the wildest stab at a word, sentence, or paragraph, and Ghotit will fathom the concept you are trying to express, understand the way in which you wish to express it and the phrasing you want to use, and deliver the result in clear, concise, correct English.

The kind of English that makes you look professional. Ghotit?

Who admires bad craftsmanship?

At its best, writing is an art. In the service of commerce it is a craft. So why is it that so many companies are happy to display bad craftsmanship so publicly?

The answer is simple: Good craftsmanship in writing doesn’t matter to them, so they assume it doesn’t matter to anyone. Bad assumption.

Thinking everyone in your market is just like you is the biggest marketing mistake you can make. It marks you as a hopeless, myopic chauvinist.

Riding the tiger

The great thing about our language is, it is alive and changing. It stays fresh and bends with the times. But its twists and turns can get out of hand.

The purpose of language is to carry information. Any change that reduces its carrying capacity, therefore, does harm, not good.

So embrace changes that increase the meaning and richness of our language, and fight changes that take meaning away and leave us with neutered, bureaucratic mumble-speak.

Chairman or Chairperson?

For example, chairman or chairwoman is preferable to chairperson because chairperson deletes information about gender. Using the word chairperson makes you appear either ignorant of the chair’s gender, or too timid or lazy to describe it. Either way, you write like an uninformative and useless blob of jelly.

Program or Programme?

We should follow the Oxford Dictionary and use the spelling program for computer programs, and programme to mean a set of structured activities or performances such as theatre or TV programmes. The different spellings convey useful information about whether or not the subject is software.

Moves are afoot in Australia to make the preferred spelling, in all cases, program. Which would make writing a tiny bit easier for the incompetents. But it screws the rest of us by stripping out information and dumbing down the language. Fuck no!

Misogynist or Sexist?

Some changes are bloody-minded vandalism. A female Australian prime minister called a male political rival a misogynist. In doing so, she deliberately conflated the words sexist and misogynist – two words with entirely different meanings.

Nevertheless, and despite a media storm which exposed the sly attempt to slur, the arbiter of definitions for the Australian English dictionary then decided to change the meaning of the word misogyny (hatred of women) to that of sexism (gender-based predjudice).

So now, in the Australian dictionary we have two words to describe discrimination on the basis of sex. And no word to describe an aberrant and pathological hatred of women.WTF? 

The clown who decided on that bit of buffoonery should be smacked in the head. With a dictionary.

Weasel words

Weasel words are the lawyer’s bread and butter and the copywriter’s preciousss. But using them blatantly will kill trust and sales. So use them judiciously. And some, not at all. Take, for example, the slick phrase ‘reach out’.

Like the best weasel words, it deliberately hides the action it pretends to describe.

When someone (usually a politician or corporate hack) says “We reached out to them” you don’t know whether they’re describing the act of flicking the other party a quick text message and ignoring the reply, or pursuing, to the point of exhaustion, every possible means of engaging and involving the other party.

Always suspect they did the former but want us to believe they did the latter.

Only use the phrase reach out if you are describing a physical action. Or if you are slimy, devious and insincere.

Writing is a numbers game

So! What have we learned? Spelling is important, punctuation is important, grammar is important. If not to you, to your market. And if, as in the examples above, correcting a misspelt word can increase sales by 80%, or adding a missing apostrophe can increase response by 400%, what’s stopping you from investigating the writing your business publishes and broadcasts, for bear-traps, landmines and IEDs?

Why wouldn’t you invest a little time and/or money on making sure your media and marketing resources are working for you, not against you?

 

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  1. I came back here to tell you that since reading this useful article I have seen a TV Commercial and a station promotion with spelling mistakes.
    Do you think writing skills in general have gotten worse and people don’t know they’re making mistakes, or are fewer companies proof reading copy before it goes to air or online?
    An excellent and informative article. Really nice to see the real examples. I’m going to use them.

  2. Yes> Writing skills in general have deteriorated markedly.

    The rot set in when when ‘whole language’ teaching methods replaced the teaching of ‘phonics’ in the 1980s and 1990s. ‘Whole language’ teaching has destroyed the literacy skills of an entire generation and is now ruining a second generation.

    Even teachers are totally screwed: A 2008 study in Victoria showed 38% of pre-service teachers and 52% of in-service teachers couldn’t identify the correct definition of a syllable!

    So it isn’t the fault of people with poor literacy skills. It’s the fault of what has been described as “an ideological hegemony among university education faculties and state education departments that actively or passively works against implementing effective evidence based reading instruction.”

    Any academic or educationalist who promotes ‘whole language’ teaching should be tried, sentenced and shot (not necessarily in that order) for the social carnage their woolly bullshit has caused.

    If any of those bastards comes within range I’mma firin’ mah lazor!!!!

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