Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power of Punctuation

One of my favorite children's books is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss. The book helps kids to see how placement of a comma can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. The title of the book, itself, refers to a panda's diet. As in, pandas eat shoots and leaves. However, an added comma can turn the sentence into that of a gun-toting bear who, after a meal, fires off a few rounds and splits. A big difference, wouldn't you agree?

The power of punctuation is quite remarkable, and it is admirable to read how Ms. Truss is able to take a concept that can be quite overwhelming to many adults and break it down so simply that even a 7-year-old can understand its importance.

With Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and plain old email running our communication lives these days, it is becoming more and more challenging to stick to the basics of grammar. Capitalization has gone by the wayside; semicolons, colons and parentheses now symbolize emotions; and, abbreviations seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. After speaking with concerned parents, frustrated professors, and dumbfounded employers, I can ascertain that the age of texting may have ushered in a surge of written communication, but its impact has been more of a curse than a blessing.

I recently read an article that suggested that online social networking sites and texting are actually helping communication. While I understand that communication itself probably is flourishing (think of all the long-lost friends with whom you might have recently reconnected and now chat with daily), grammar - and thereby "proper" communication - is nearly a lost art.

This is a problem because business communication centers on proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Consider this scenario: a small business (let's name it Company A) is selected to submit a proposal for a project that will exponentially increase its market share and, also, make it a leader in its particular field. As is typical with requests for proposals, at least two or three other companies also are asked to bid for the job. Company A works diligently on its proposal by analyzing the job as a whole, creating a plan of action for each step, determining pricing for the individual components of the project, and running the final budget by each department head to ensure that the numbers are on target. Company A seems to be doing everything right.

However, the time to compile all that information into a written proposal arrives and Company A hands it off to the sales manager, who is a remarkable salesperson, but is sorely lacking written communication skills. He writes the proposal as best he can, adds a few "cool"-looking charts and graphs, runs the spell-check function, prints it, slaps on a pretty cover page, and mails a hard copy to the potential client. A few weeks later, Company A learns that Company B won the account. After hearing through the grapevine that Company B's bid was actually a bit higher than theirs, they start to wonder why they (who have been in business longer than Company B and would likely have more to offer the potential client) were not chosen.

One look at their proposal would have given them their answer: spelling and grammar errors that turned a good proposal (that would have won them the business) into a sloppy mess. The potential client read Company A's carelessly written report and assumed that a business that would lack such attention to detail on a proposal would most likely lack that kind of attention to the project being proposed. Company B's proposal was flawless, detailed, easy to comprehend, and visually stunning. They wanted to contract a company that exhibited that level of pride and professionalism in its work.

"The devil is in the details" is an expression for a reason. Proper punctuation, perfect grammar and spelling, and an eye-catching presentation require significant attention to detail, and can, therefore, be easily overlooked. However, carelessness can make or break a project, or even a business. So you need to ask yourself, "can my company afford to overlook the power of punctuation?" Chances are, the answer is "no."

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