Why you should use stories as strategies

Written by Quietroom
Dictionary image

We’ve all used language strategically. This is what determines the success of moments like interviews, apologies, and proposals.

I thought about this on the train home yesterday, after tuning in to an interesting conversation. It was between three business folk, who were discussing famous typos over Proust and McFlurries. Picture a tasteful, table-seat tableau.

‘My worst career moment was when I worked for the Oxford English Dictionary’, said the man on my right, finishing a prawn sandwich. He explained that they’d just finished editing the Mini Dictionary of Spelling, when the printer called at 3am. He’d happened to glance at one of the pages and thought ‘inaccurate’ might be spelt wrong. And it was.

Everyone at the OED faced a dilemma. They’d already printed thousands of copies. And so far, they had only two strategies. The man next to me suggested an impromptu competition, ‘prize for the first person to spot the error’. In the end, the editors plumped for a different idea, ‘ignore it and hope nobody notices’. Within days, the mocking celebration of the OED’s great orthological failure began. People loved the irony of it.

I retired to the view outside the train window to think about this. The problem wasn’t that they made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. The real mistake was thinking nobody would notice. So what strategy should you use to tell the world you’ve published the word ‘inaccurate’ wrong, thousands of times over?

Often the best strategy is to tell the story, whether through a competition, an anecdote or apology. Stories are personal. They’re a way of expressing intimacy with the reader. By staying silent, the readers associated the typo with the Oxford English Dictionary, not the hardworking, slightly frazzled team of editors. People forgive other people for mistakes more readily than they forgive a dictionary, or a corporation. If there’s communication, there are people. And we empathise with people.

It’s not always enough just to ‘communicate’. A few years ago The Sun publicly apologised for misspelling the name of the mother of a soldier who died in Afghanistan. Their statement ended, ‘We are happy to apologise for our mistake’. There was no ‘sorry’ there, only that they wouldn’t mind saying it. Language has to reflect what we want to do, the relationships we’re trying to build.

If you don’t say what you mean, or worse say nothing at all, people feel disconnected from you. If you sit back and hope nobody notices a mistake, people will catch you out. If you assume energy and intelligence in people, you can use language in a way that relates to them. You can strategise with language, using resonant words to spark understanding, compassion and forgiveness.

Our wunderkind intern in 2013, Libby Brown, wrote this blog.