The ultimate price of poor business writing: From space shuttle disasters to corporate ruin

Where were you in the early hours of 29 January 1986?

If, like me, you are old enough to remember it, this was the day Australians woke to the tragic news of NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.

For all you millennials and Gen Zers out there, I’m referring to the catastrophic explosion in Florida that killed all seven crew members – including a primary school teacher.

What’s this got to do with bad business writing, you ask?

The Challenger disaster has become a well-known case study for how poor writing can lead to tragedy – and a stark reminder of the critical importance of clear, concise and persuasive communication.

Here’s what happened.

An investigation following the disaster revealed that some engineers were opposed to the launch. Shockingly, they knew there was a problem. And they knew how to fix it. But in their repeated attempts to warn management, the engineers failed to present their case clearly or convincingly.

For example, one writer of a letter that included data to support calling off the launch failed to actually interpret the data. The writer also used qualifying statements – including words such as ‘appears’, ‘suggests’ and ‘indicates’ – and buried important information within the text.

The result? Readers didn’t understand this key piece of correspondence. Ignored it. And therefore, failed to act.

And it happened again in 2003

Shedding foam tiles contributed to the Columbian Space Shuttle disaster of 2003 – once again ending the lives of all seven on board.

It all started with a rambling email from an engineer about the extent to which a tile had damaged the shuttle. But his recipients didn’t even read the email.

Why? Because he rabbited on about personal issues at the beginning of the message.

And that wasn’t all.

Engineers later presented a PowerPoint to management to assess the damage via a mathematical model. However, the engineers noted that the mathematical model was invalid for a damage of this magnitude. But because they mentioned this at the bottom of the slide, this critical point was barely noticed.

Bad writing has caused nuclear accidents and floods too

On 28 March 1979, a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was concluded to be a direct result of failed communication.

A memo that contained an urgent request to change safety procedures was not read properly or actioned. Among other problems, it was filled with superfluous detail that distracted the reader from the main point.

Then there was the Chicago Flood on 13 April 1992.

Several weeks before the flood, an engineer wrote to his supervisor seeking permission to repair a freight tunnel. But he failed to appreciate that his supervisor (who was not an engineer) didn’t have the technical knowledge to understand many of his statements.

His manager also didn’t have the insight to foresee the dangers of not acting immediately, which the engineer had not explicitly outlined.

What’s more, he buried the most important information deep within the memo. And he did not include his request for approval until the end.

This story is a lot less dramatic – but closer to home

In April last year, Centrelink was left with egg on its face after sending an error-riddled letter to a Melbourne student.

The letter had numerous typos, cited an irrelevant law – and even misspelt its own name as ‘Cedntrelink’. It was also unsigned and unevenly spaced.

At first, the student thought the letter couldn’t be real, saying it was ‘so bad it had to be a scam’.

Obviously, no one died here. But this story does show how poor writing can embarrass an organisation and lead to bad PR.

What’s the real cost of bad writing to business?

Bad writing can do serious damage to a brand’s credibility.

It can mislead and misinform consumers. And it can cause people to question the integrity of your business – as well as the credibility and professionalism of your staff.

And when it comes to the cost of poor writing on staff productivity and operational efficiency, some simple number crunching can be very illuminating.

In his survey, The State of Business Writing, Josh Bernoff found that people in business spend 6% of total wages trying to get meaning out of poorly written material – which equates to almost US$400 billion of national income.

What are the biggest bugbears, according to Bernoff? Writing that’s too long, poorly organised, unclear, jargon-filled and imprecise.

This is no surprise to Bernoff, given the lack of business writing training that occurs in the workplace:

‘Entry-level employees get little training in how to write in a brief, clear, and incisive way. Instead, they’re immersed in first-draft emails from their managers, poorly edited reports, and jargon-filled employee manuals. Their own flabby writing habits fit right in. And the whole organization drowns in productivity-draining blather.’

Even a small typo can be fatal

In 2009, a UK government agency reported that a company called ‘Taylor & Sons Ltd’ was going into administration. But because they accidentally added an ‘s’ to the word ‘Son’, the company that was actually in administration (Taylor & Son) was confused with a 124-year-old Welsh engineering firm that was alive and well (Taylor & Sons).

In less than three weeks, Taylor & Sons lost most of its clients. Creditors withdrew from their financing agreements. And 3,000 suppliers cancelled their contracts.

Within two months, the company was forced into bankruptcy.

The High Court later ruled that the government agency was directly responsible for the bankruptcy, and Taylor & Sons was awarded damages of $14 million.

Let’s end with a funny (not funny) story

In 1988, Banner Travel Services in California placed an ad in the Yellow Pages promoting travel arrangements to exotic destinations.

But when the ad was printed, the word ‘exotic’ was accidentally published as ‘erotic’.

The unsuspecting travel agency suffered irrevocable damage to its reputation and lost 80% of its customers.

As for Yellow Pages? When they graciously offered to refund the travel agency’s $230 listing fee, the agency responded by suing them for gross negligence.

Yellow Pages was forced to pay more than US$19 million in damages.

If you think poor writing could be putting your organisation at risk – big or small – it’s time to do something about it. Learn more about our flagship course, Business Writing Essentials today.