I’ve come to confess. When I laugh extremely hard and simultaneously attempt to speak, I sound like a severely asthmatic pterodactyl. When I’m cackling over a bad joke* with my children or polishing off a bag of chips while binge-watching Netflix, it’s a delightful addition to the atmosphere. At other times, it’s a liability.
A couple of years ago, I was teaching an English class that went awry. My roster was filled with extremely dedicated, serious students, the type for whom a score of ninety was akin to a death knell for their scholastic dreams. While explaining a concept to a particularly sober young woman, I referenced the world map behind me. As I touched on the surface with the tips of my fingers, the clasp on the left-hand side broke and the map went catawampus. My eyes widened and I lapsed into stunned silence. I was overwhelmed by the awkwardness of the map’s precarious position and giggled. The student stared at me, deadpan, her lips disappearing into a thin line and her back ramrod straight. I attempted to regain my train of thought.
The map fell off the wall.
To say I lost my composure is an understatement. I burst out laughing and clung to my waist in hilarious surrender.
She was not amused.
I began explaining gerunds again, only to sound like I was blowing a small trumpet and crying. I wheezed, tears springing to my eyes. My breath came out in gasps and my laughter alternated between raspberries, snorts, and shrill titters. My attempts to keep my mouth shut and demure while the giggling burst forth intermittently only made my face look more crazed and the sounds more spastic and appropriate for the bathroom. I bit my lips, my cheeks, my tongue—I swallowed my tonsils—but the laughter kept bubbling up. It took a full minute or two for me to rein in my paroxysm, complete with a stern inner monologue along the lines of: “Stop laughing. She is beginning to think you’re insane. Get it together! Think of sad things. Dead pets. Sick children. Divorce. Stop laughing, you maniac!”
Her expression was inscrutable, but I’d hazard a guess she was torn between disgust, shock, and fear. Stark fear. She was watching madness descend upon me, or so she thought. All the while I was silently cursing my fantastic and completely indecorous sense of humor.
When I finally managed to speak intelligibly, the lesson continued apace, but the dignity of a respectable learning environment was completely lost. My credibility had been blasted to pieces. I began to consider just how much of a fraud I was, trying to teach English when I could barely use it. At the end of class, I smiled weakly and thanked her for her hard work. She declined to respond and disappeared.
I doubt her parents enjoyed learning about my juvenile behavior. The only benefit I gained from that debacle was a solid hour and a half of combined laughter from the initial incident and its recurrent remembrance. For that reason alone, I struggle to fully lambast myself for my behavior.
While I doubt most of our ProofreadNOW clients are at risk of a written scandal along the lines of what I like to call “Map/Donkey-Laughgate,” the risk for inadvertent embarrassment and lack of professionalism is unbelievably high in business writing. We are, after all, human; and English is a wonderful stew pot of homophones, synonyms, punctuation quirks, spicy adjectives, and infuriating spelling rules. The combination of these two, even for the most well-bred and educated among us, can lead to unintended snafus. Add to that the stakes of time, varying audience, informational overload, stress, fatigue, and overwhelming responsibilities, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster.
I didn’t have a backup plan. The map fell off the wall and I fell apart. As you can probably guess, her parents didn’t keep her around the likes of me for much longer. They skeptically booked a few more classes—I’m assuming out of necessity and by way of an apology—and moved her to a teacher with the austerity and assumed sobriety they required. Laughter at the expense of a client. It wasn’t my finest trade-off.
Don’t let this happen to you.
First, securely fasten all your maps to the wall. Second, don’t leave your business writing to chance.
That’s why we’re here; it’s why ProofreadNOW exists. We all need a second (or third) eye on our work, a hand at our back, and support for our heavy loads. It’s easy to believe spell check, caffeine, online dictionaries, and our spectacular brains will have the wherewithal to produce quality business writing. However, we often fail to prepare for our limitations and mitigate their consequences.
Professional business writing is critical to successful communication, client acquisition and retention, sales, management, and even sanity; the price of its absence is too high to leave to chance.
If your memos, e-mails, publications, annual reports, newsletters, pamphlets, handbooks, press releases, agendas, white papers, or heavily used sticky notes (converted into PDFs, of course) are convoluted, stale, horrifying, inappropriate, keeping you up at night, or putting your colleagues and clients to sleep at first glance, contact us. We’re like a sweet, one-off insurance policy—preserving your professionalism and eliminating the risk of looking like the doofus I mentioned earlier who laughs hysterically at things as simple as a map falling off the wall.
*What’s the best way to carve wood? Whittle by whittle.