What happened when we left an error in an email to 7,000 people

Jardin des TuileriesI love my job, on most days. We help people with a task that millions find very stressful and problematic. So it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to relieve that pain. For me, it’s the best job in the world.

Most days.

Then there are the other (thankfully) much rarer days, when things don’t quite go according to plan. I had one of those days last Tuesday.

That was the day we sent out our e-bulletin, complete with a howling typo, to seven thousand subscribers.

Now, dear reader, if you’re ever looking for a guaranteed way to show up every mistake in a piece of writing, that method takes some beating. I can’t honestly say it’s one I’d recommend though.

We spotted the mistake in the email as soon as we’d sent it (and before we sent it, in fact – see below). You probably did, too. But in case you missed it, here it is again (because we’re nothing if not gluttons for punishment):

While your on that page, don’t forget to sign up to Jacob’s free, seven-part grammar and punctuation course.

I know: it’s awful. So awful that I could barely bring myself to type those words. (It should, of course, have read you’re.)

Other people may be able to get away with a slip of the fingers, but not us. We obviously need to be squeaky clean in these matters, simply because of what we do. Nor was the irony of such a basic mistake in a sentence advertising a grammar course lost on us. Believe me, a typo like that really is the stuff of nightmares for us.

The response from our enthusiastic subscriber base was as swift and uncompromising as it was understandable. My email inbox quickly filled up with messages from loyal readers wondering what on earth we were playing at.

Initially, I was blissfully unaware of the grammar firestorm that had erupted back at Emphasis HQ. I was on a half-term holiday with my family, and my WiFi connection was ‘relaxed’ at best.

When I did finally get a connection, I almost wished I’d stayed offline a little longer.

The first thing that came through was an instant message from one of my team, warning me of the error. I spent the next hour on the phone to them, trying to piece together just how the mistake had slipped through the net. Then I started working my way through sending a personal email of apology and explanation to every person who’d emailed me. (It was the digital equivalent of putting on a hair shirt.) I also promised them free access to our new e-learning course, Writing better email, to thank them for their trouble. (If you were one of those people, I’ll be emailing you a link today.)

I’ll tell you how they reacted in a minute. But first, what exactly did go wrong?

Well, as I mentioned, my initial slip of the fingers had been spotted during our proofreading process and duly corrected. But the correction had been made in the HTML code. Then, somehow, it was an older version of the code that our mailing system sent out.

Now, our proofreading methods are pretty good (as you would hope). But any process is only as good as its weakest link, which in this case was making the final corrections in the code. Needless to say, we won’t be doing that again. (We’ve since changed mailing systems, so that we don’t have to.)

I’m sorry, and I hope you can forgive us this one. Please rest assured that, whatever effect it’s had on your view of us, it’s nothing compared with the soul-searching that’s still going on at Emphasis HQ.

However, there is what may be a helpful postscript to this story: the reactions I received to my emails of apology. More than two-thirds of the people I personally emailed took the trouble to write back (in most cases immediately) to say that no harm had been done and that, if anything, our reaction to what we’re already calling ‘Yourgate’ had enhanced their view of Emphasis.

I’m not so vain or naïve to think that leaving in the error was a good thing. But that feedback suggests that, should you ever mess up, you could do worse than adopt a similar approach.

As one correspondent put it, ‘These things happen in business. But, as you’ve proved, it’s how you respond to them that counts.’ That was from the MD of a large investment bank, no less, who took time out from his evening to write me that email. (I was – and still am – so grateful for his response and the many others I got over the next few days.)

Unfortunately, the only certain way to avoid mistakes in what you write is never to write anything at all. We’ve got no intention of doing that and we’ll continue to provide our free advice for as long as we can. Realistically, at some point, another error will eventually slip through the net, no matter how hard we try to stop that happening. For us, it’s a terrifying prospect.

So, the next time you have writer’s block, perhaps you can draw comfort from the fact that you don’t have to put ‘business-writing adviser’ at the end of every email. Because, believe me, that is the best way I know to paralyse even the most fluent of writers.

Image credit: Guilhem Vellut

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