17 Are you a betting man now?

I wonder if you saw that mentalist Derren Brown on the box a couple of weeks ago, fooling the population into thinking he’d predicted the winning numbers on the National Lottery, using a system called – enjoy the barbed irony – the Wisdom of Crowds.

Apparently all you need is 24 delusional people with TV cameras on them doing some cranky “automatic writing” followed by some “deep maths”, ie working out an average on a calculator. And then you’ve suddenly got an £85m bulge in your pocket. Couldn’t be simpler. How did he do it? The trick is exploded at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqAt2akPHJ8.

I’m something of an illusionist myself, and my prediction is that you won’t click that link if you prefer mysteries and uncertainties. And you will if you prefer debunkery. Dead easy this Derren Brown lark.

Oh yes, you could do it, could you?
In my email on 14 Sept to readers of this blog, knowing already that the subject of my next post – this one – would be punctuation, I inserted a deliberate punctuation error into the final paragraph of the email to see how many people would notice. Only one out of 136 recipients hauled me up. And gloatingly by return was I berated for the error of my ways. Quite right too.

If it was an error. Was it intentional? Or is the above just a long-winded way of covering up an embarrassing mistake? This mentalism is a doddle! Honestly, Derren, go home, mate.

Oh, very clever, trying to make me look dumb for not noticing it?
Not in the least. What this raises is a real question of just how punctuation is perceived these days. As not worth mentioning? Not for everyone. Not for warrior apostrophist Stefan Gatward, 62, who, as reported in The Daily Telegraph, recently took a small tin of black paint and a No 6 sable brush into his hands and went out and edited the road signs where he lives, in St Johns Close, now correctly apostrophised as St John’s Close. And where is that exactly? Royal Tunbridge Wells, of course. Where else?
Mr Gatward’s work was not uniformly well received. He told reporters: “A neighbour called me a vandal and a graffiti artist.” I love that. A 62-year-old Banksy obsessed by punctuation. That is well wicked, riaght? “He tried to tell me that the post office would not deliver to the street if you put an apostrophe on the address.” Well, we all know that’s rubbish. The Post Office is contracted to deliver everywhere without compromise, eight days late as standard.

I wish I had been in Mr Gatward’s kitchen when he read the Telegraph article describing him as having formerly “served with the Gordon Highlands” as opposed to the Gordon Highlanders.

And how this relates to business is…?
A previous post here (07 Punctuation: what’s the point?) suggested a connection between detail on the page and detail on the job. Yes, but the wisdom of crowds seems not to include knowledge of apostrophes, and the speed at which we’re expected to communicate these days makes a slip of the finger forgivable anyway.

Not so. Be rigorous. The recession has given us all cause for thought. Darwinian survival of the fittest has taken hold, and the crocodiles are inching up the mud-flats.

A company’s reputation depends not just on its specialist expertise but also on the quality of its frontline communication. How genuinely helpful and welcoming are your receptionists? On the phone? Face to face? How credible is the correspondence you send out? Are the countless emails written in the company name every day as grammatically accurate as the Board Reports that cost thousands to produce and sit on shelves?

Finally, just to reassure you that there has been no sleight of hand in the writing of this blog, I will unconditionally offer £85m to the first person who finds a punctuation error in any of the above, following modern conventions.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
07767 20 20 22


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