25 It’s ok at home, but not in the office

Some things are hard to explain. The purchase of bathroom towels is one of these things.

I don’t mean to intrude into your personal space here, but for the purpose of what follows you do need to know that in the flat I share with the Canadian blonde in London’s bijou W9, bathroom towels come in only two colours: warm charcoal and cool chocolate (that’s grey and brown if you’re common.)

When her brother came to stay last week, fine man that he is we gave him a towel. It’s the least you can do for these people. Canadians, as you probably know, are the cleanest people on the planet. Public fluoridation results in teeth you can see from Venus, they believe in queues, respect traffic lights and detest Americans. A towel is the least he deserved.

Except I couldn’t remember which colour we gave him. Charcoal or chocolate? And so in the bi-chromatic mist of a temporarily shared bathroom – which towel was mine not his, as I stepped out of the shower?

It’s well documented that in 73% of similar cases, the first morning you use the grey towel, the second morning brown. You’re getting it totally wrong exactly half the time. Why? Because you can’t remember. And also because it probably doesn’t much matter between friends.

And how this relates to business is…?
Because it does matter between you and your clients.

Oh right, doing deals in the sauna now, are we?
If you wish. The image of two greased-up bankers grappling with birch twigs while discussing interim bonds does conjure up the current plight of Reykjavik. But I refer to something more mundane.

I refer to a sentence I found in the verbal morass of a BSF bid that I am currently editing. Don’t know what a BSF bid is? Picture a transit van crammed with two years of lever arch files and you’re pretty much there. All of which paper could, of course, be boiled down to: “Chose us, we’re a bit nicer than the other lot” with a sensible price attached. Goodbye to months of hair-pulling for a hundred people and more. But this is a government-funded initiative, so interminable hoop-jumping is required.

Anyway, here’s the sentence that relates to those colourful towels. “Our Principal Design Advisor will consult with the Principle Education Adviser on the best options for the school.”

Ok, people get confused by principle/principal, and the adviser/advisor thing keeps serious word geeks awake all night. But can you explain how it’s possible for someone to spell the same word two different ways in the same sentence? Dictionaries still exist. What’s a client to make of a document where the writer’s solution to a spelling dilemma is to lump something down they know must be wrong – especially when trying to win work in the education sector?

That’s like using all the towels in the bathroom at the same time – and then leaving them on the floor for someone else to pick up.

That someone is people like me. As editors, we’re here to help. But if you want real value from us, perhaps you could three-line whip your people with Icelandic birch twigs every Tuesday afternoon to proof their own work and so give editors more time to spend on creating concision and persuasive benefit for the bid. This observation applies to all business writing. Spell it out: it’s a matter of principle.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember


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