Read, Write & Win

Vesta Rea-Gaubert

The evolution of technology has turned us into great electronic communicators. We are obsessed with sending emails, text messages, tweets, etc. Unfortunately, we no longer communicate very well or very accurately on paper. Often, our written messages are loaded with misspelled or missing words, poor sentence structure and punctuation problems. 

These days, well-written internal memos and elegantly crafted external documents are harder to find than "a pig at the opera."

Not long ago, the voice of a very irritated aviation manager boomed through my cellphone, asking why highly educated engineers and planners can't seem to read or write. "I just reviewed 19 technical proposals for a major project and immediately pitched 15 in the trash, because the best I could give them was 25 points out of 100," he fumed. "I'm convinced they never took English and did not read the RFP!" 

Vesta Rea-Gaubert
Vesta Rea-Gaubert is the principal of Vesta Rea & Associates, a transportation public relations/marketing firm in Houston founded 25 years ago. She has published articles in more than 100 magazines and is a former corporate pilot.

Clients notice when reports and proposals are poorly written or are laden with mistakes. They form an opinion about your company, and not a good one.
Due to market demand, our public relations firm has evolved from specializing in transportation marketing and political consulting services to delivering communications support as well. Specifically, primes and consultants pursuing multimillion/billion dollar airport and highway projects seek our expertise on highly technical, detailed written documents. 

Frankly, some of the documents give us heartburn. Doesn't anybody know how to use verbs and prepositions?

Many of the problems we correct stem from four issues:

1. Procrastination
Staff members do not take the time to thoroughly read a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or a Request for a Proposal (RFP). And, sadly, few people read to comprehend. Project managers are obligated to do so. But when we ask if this has occurred, "sort of" is a common response.

We believe it takes three readings for complete comprehension.

2. Prioritization
Preliminary documents are often submitted to clients for content review, but clients seldom perceive them as drafts. They see documents that don't flow and have structural errors as just plain sloppy. 

We advise companies to apply the same standards of accuracy and writing quality to drafts as final deliverables. 

3. Timing
Pressure creates mistakes, lots of mistakes. 

Too often, proposals and plans arrive on the marketing coordinator or administrative assistant's desk the day before the submission deadline. Already knee-deep in other assignments, he or she rushes to review it on time because proposals are "top priorities." 

Word to the wise: You're not being diplomatic by inserting "Please" before "Get it done!". Allowing the proper amount of time - two full days for editing and production - is a better strategy. Otherwise, Ms./Mr. Efficient will invariably do a poor job (and call you colorful names).

4. Accuracy
Content and punctuation errors are compounded when several people with different writing styles contribute to a document, which is almost always the case for technical reports involving multiple firms. Typically, the words flow like rocks over a waterfall: quickly and clumsily. Even the charts and graphs contain mistakes!

Have at least two people who have never seen a document, yet still know the subject matter, review both its draft and final versions before submittal.

Why do organizations spend so much money submitting seriously flawed documents? The most common reasons are poor time management, depending on computerized spell check programs, a basic lack of good grammar skills and assuming someone else will catch mistakes.

With private companies, it is all about the chase - looking for that next big opportunity. For public agencies, the focus is on funding for the next project. In both cases, quality in document delivery slips between the proverbial cracks far too often.

As my ole Texas daddy preached, "Money isn't the most important thing in life, but whatever comes second is a long way down the road!" Well-written, professionally edited reports and proposals probably rate somewhere in third place, right behind experience.  

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