Biggest fuck up?
My biggest fuck up was when I was training to be a journalist, and I did work experience on a local newspaper in south London. In the scheme of things, it was a small error on a scale of life and death, but I got the year of the D-Day landings wrong, and the date actually made it into print!
That edition of the paper was published the day before I finished my work experience and before the fallout could begin – When I realised my error, all I could imagine was the letters that would have arrived at the newspaper’s office by the sackful and, I’m sure, the clarification that would have had to have been printed the week after. As newspapers weren’t online at that point, I never knew how seismic the reaction was, and I was quite glad.
Needless to say, I didn’t apply to that newspaper for a job after I passed my exams, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy when I think about it!
I was so disappointed with myself. Not only for making a really stupid error about something so important to get right but also because being born and brought up in Portsmouth, the D-Day landings are something I’ve learned about from a very young age and should know that date off by heart! As a result of this absolutely gut-wrenching balls up, I always made sure I checked dates, addresses and any other information I thought I knew already…just in case!
Something that gets my goat is when people in the communications profession who usually have a vast vocabulary just ape corporate-speak that takes all the joy out of language.
As a communicator, I completely understand the need to talk the same language as your audience – or the client you’re hoping will believe in your credibility and expertise – but does this really have to come at the cost of our beautiful language?
A pet hate of mine is when people use words or phrases like “reach out”. What the person who says that is attempting to say is “contacted” and not that they were physically reaching out to me, which, in certain circumstances, would involve a call to HR! But my beef with “reaching out” goes further than that. In journalism, we’re taught to use as few words as possible to tell the most compelling story we can. So why say reach out to describe contacting when, with a simple change of word, you can infer contact and also describe how that person was contacted? We can have, and this isn’t an exhaustive list: telephoned, called, emailed, texted, messaged, wrote to, spoke to, met, yelled at, shouted to, whispered to, signed to, Snapped, WhatsApped, Facebooked, Tweeted to…
We have a rich language, and communicators who use bland words or phrases like reaching out are like professional gardeners who rip up flower beds and lawns and replace them with concrete slabs and plastic grass.
Why do we do it?
Is it because we think we won’t get the business if we talk using the vocabulary we have learned over many years of training? Or is it because we’re worried we make people feel stupid? Or is it just laziness? That we can’t be bothered to find the right word anymore? Whatever the reason, it makes me sad.
I will add one caveat, though, because there is an exception to every rule: you are allowed to say “reach out” to mean “contact” if you are, or ever have been, a member of the Four Tops!
The best piece of advice I have ever been given is that if you make the best decision you can based on all the knowledge that was available at the time, then you will have done your best, and that is more than ok.
Sometimes they might not work out as you thought they should, but very rarely is that anything other than a learning point to add to the huge bank of learning points each and every person – no matter how senior or seemingly unflappable – carries around with them. So rather than agonise over a decision, interrogate the data you have and make a decision based on that. You won’t go far wrong. It’s something I use in my personal life as well as my professional life, and it really helps.