If the devil is in the detail, where is the Almighty? Well, in answer to that question, the Almighty is probably handling the big picture. Which is why the devil takes the detail – nothing can sabotage a grand vision quite as comprehensively as spelling mistakes, careless writing and errors of fact.
Some years ago, as email established itself as our primary form of business communication, I was taken aside by the agency's newly-arrived American head of tech PR and gently told that emails didn't have to be perfect: they were quick, transient and inconsequential as pieces of writing – punctuation and spelling were irrelevant. I thought that was bad advice then and now I know it was wrong.
Even as researchers, biographers and historians rejoice at the oceans of contemporary history and anecdote that is being laid down for future generations, we should be shuddering at the lack of quality and care that denotes most email and digital communication. Imbuing anything written with accuracy and style trains the brain to deliver the same quality in all communication, written or verbal.
Why does it matter especially for us? Public relations is a representational business: professionally and personally we represent the face of our organisations and clients. We are the visible (and responsible, often, for generating further visibility) manifestation of the culture and behaviour of any particular organisation. And we are always wordsmiths: scripts, speeches, blogs, plans, texts, emails, articles, conversations – words are our stock-in-trade*. If we fail to check detail, produce badly constructed error-strewn material and live with a "that'll do" approach, what does that imply about the organisation itself?
Yes, this is detail – but do we really trust people who get things wrong? And when is a detail so unimportant as to be inconsequential? Are you a spell checker disciple who can't tell would from trees? Are you an advisor (or the head of a trade association) who believes its OK to boldly go rather than it's best to go boldly?
Talking about disciples, here are some of them who help undo the devil's work: Keith Waterhouse, Harold Evans, Steven Pinker, Simon Anholt, David Bellos – all have written easily readable books about aspects of writing style. Waterhouse's 1989 classic Waterhouse on Newspaper Styleis available in paperback again. Hardback editions are probably too well used to be valuable but if you have one – hold onto it.
This month, the bible of style guides is republished with the 12th Edition of The Economist Style Guide. It still insists that split infinitives matter, is packed with simple factual advice (and simple facts) and will give you an easy definition of, and guidance on, the Oxford comma.
You do know about the Oxford comma, don't you?
* Yes, there are hyphens in stock-in-trade, I checked.
Written by Jackie Elliot, CEO of communications firm Cathcart Consulting
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