Attention to detail is an important component of effective communications. However, amid the clamor for share of voice, attention to detail seems on its way to becoming a lost art.
Over the course of my career in healthcare communications, I’ve been involved in dozens of new business pitches, whether as an agency employee or as a freelance consultant. Invariably, these efforts have focused on “selling” our prospects on the pitch team’s vast experience, expansive wisdom, communications savvy, and unsurpassed expertise in a specific product or therapeutic category. While these are all important attributes, and indeed have often been decisive in terms of landing (or not landing) the business, there is one other factor that is at least as important but rarely emphasized: attention to detail.
Any professional communicator worth his or her salt should take pride in attention to detail. Yet, amazingly, attention to detail seems increasingly taken for granted in industry circles. Many communications practitioners appear to pay lip service to the concept of attention to detail, telling clients, prospects, and other constituencies that it’s an important part of what they do, but their sloppiness and neglect suggest otherwise. This is a very disturbing trend, because while attention to detail may not even be noticed when it’s done vigilantly and consistently, inattention to detail can be disastrous.
As a freelance medical writer, I am often called upon to proofread and edit documents written by my clients, or by the life sciences companies that are my clients’ clients. Such was the case recently when I reviewed an FAQ document produced by a company specializing in molecular diagnostic technology. “FAQ,” as you probably know, stands for Frequently Asked Questions. In this case the document was supposedly in its “final” form, complete with graphics and fancy-looking type. It was sent to me as a courtesy, almost as an afterthought, as if the company just needed my “blessing” for the document, as opposed to a thorough review. The bulk of the content appeared to have been very well thought-out, with clear, concise, and “consumer-friendly” answers to some very technical questions. Yet at the very top of the page, in big bold letters, appeared the title of the document: “FREQUENTLY ASK QUESTIONS.”
My first thought, upon reading the title, was, Yes, I do that all the time. My second thought was, This is horrible. I immediately alerted my client, who relayed the message to his client, who was, indeed, horrified that such an egregious typo had gone undetected through several rounds of review and revisions. The typo was corrected in the final version, and the company, which prides itself on its technical savvy and cutting-edge approach to diagnostics, avoided looking like a bunch of idiots. But I shudder to think of how that FAQ document might have been received had I not been given the chance to review it.
Sometimes a document may be grammatically correct, with perfect (or nearly perfect) punctuation, but other things may be amiss. For instance, the font size, line spacing, or justification may differ from one paragraph to the next. I’ve even seen documents in which the product or disease name is spelled one way in the lead paragraph, and a different way in another paragraph. Sometimes a common disease acronym may appear in the headline or lead paragraph but the full name of the disease is not spelled out until the fourth or fifth paragraph (as I recently recounted in my blog entry, “Can clients be clicker-trained?”). All of these are examples of inattention to detail, which can undermine the validity and credibility of any message.
In my opinion, the ubiquity of e-mail has contributed to the decline of attention to detail. In the early years of my career in healthcare communications, the typewritten letter and “snail mail” were the principal means of communication, and considerable time and energy were devoted to proofreading and editing written materials. In those days, e-mail was a new medium, and was regarded as something of a novelty instead of an essential tool. Consequently, e-mail was widely seen as a less-formal medium, one not deserving of as much editorial scrutiny as more “traditional” media. As you know, it didn’t take long for e-mail to catch on like wildfire; its very instantaneity made e-mail the dominant form of personal and business communication. Yet incredibly, even today, few people seem to spend any time proofreading their e-mails before clicking “Send.” I recently received an e-mail from a client who was congratulating a colleague for “her crowing achievement”! It seems that e-mail is still considered an informal (i.e., less attention-worthy) medium, even as it consumes more of our time and energy. Moreover, as people spend more time texting, Tweeting, and using other new(ish) media offering more-or-less-instant gratification, attention to detail will probably be further devalued.
For many healthcare communicators, a frequent source of frustration is the requirement to reference documents. There are many ways to reference a document; medical journals and many life sciences companies have proprietary reference styles that must be adhered to. However, I am often amazed at how little attention seems to be paid to such style requirements. I’ve seen documents in which reference #1 has been correctly formatted according to AMA style but reference #2 uses a totally different style, or the page numbers are missing for several references, or quotation marks are used to surround the title of one article but not of any of the others. More often, I’ve had clients delete references or move text around within a document but neglect to renumber or otherwise alter the list of references, throwing the validity of the references into question. Fortunately, one can now make use of referencing software programs that can greatly simplify the task of referencing, saving the writer considerable time and aggravation. However, those programs aren’t perfect; I sometimes use a program that claims to format references according to AMA style (provided you choose that style from a drop-down menu), but writes journal titles in a way that is inconsistent with AMA style. Additionally, many journals will not accept manuscripts in which a reference software program — or even Microsoft Word’s “Insert Reference” mechanism — has been used to input and format references. In such instances, every reference must be input manually, a process that practically invites error. That makes attention to detail even more important. But who among us has the time and inclination to pay such focused attention?
In today’s business climate, executives are under increasing pressure to make this week’s deadline, make this quarter’s numbers, or hit some other kind of metric. Faced with such constant pressure, many executives may feel they lack the time to devote sufficient attention to a project. To be fair, some executives in marketing and other disciplines may find themselves responsible for communicating with key constituencies, despite their lack of training and expertise in communications. Some rely on communications professionals to produce, edit, and/or fine-tune their written materials (and I applaud them for that!). Others, however, seem content to hit the proverbial “Send” button without performing such due diligence. Thus the widespread dissemination of materials with glaring errors and inconsistencies. As I noted above, this is a very disturbing trend. When attention to detail is devalued, clarity is the casualty, and confusion will reign. Anyone who fails to appreciate that is destined to be misunderstood.