Where’s the White-Out?

typewriter-1248088_640As an executive secretary for Texas Bank and Trust in the 1950’s, Bette Nesmith Graham did a lot of typing. This being before the modern age of computers, any mistakes she made using her typewriter meant starting over. There was no backspace button, and even simple errors in her work could result in thousands of dollars being misplaced.

Working in her kitchen, Graham began mixing tempera paints with other household items in a blender. Before long, she had stumbled upon a concoction she could apply to the paper, covering a mistake and allowing her to type over it. She called it “Mistake Out” and began handing out small bottles of it to her coworkers.

A couple of years later, Graham started the Mistake Out Company and started selling her product, which was still made in her kitchen. When she accidentally put her own company’s name on a letter from the bank, she was let go and devoted herself full-time to growing the business. She sold the company and its flagship product, renamed Liquid Paper, to the Gillette Corporation in 1979.

Not many people use liquid paper these days. Digital communication makes is easy to correct mistakes in emails, documents, and even social media posts. But that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten any better at preventing mistakes from slipping out. I make plenty of them each and every day.

Oh, tools like Spell Check and AutoCorrect may catch the easy stuff; but it’s still up to us to correct the most important aspects of our communication before hitting the send button. Things like tone, clarity of language, and audience selection have replaced “i before e” and “who vs. whom” as the top faux pas. Communicating in the digital age requires more attention than ever, even as attention spans continue to shrink.

Here are three of the most common modern-day mistakes and some thoughts on how to correct them.

  • The premature send – You accidentally hit Send before completing your message, and have to follow up with another email or text to finish the thought or correct an error.
    • Try composing your message before adding names in the To: line. Any accidental Send will fail without an addressee, providing you with a safety net.
    • Re-read your email for clarity and tone. I often find reading an email out loud helps identify awkward sentences and incomplete thoughts.
    • Ask a trusted coworker to read your message before you send. They can help spot issues you may be blind to.
  • The unintended audience – Your message goes out to people it shouldn’t.
    • Double-check the names added in the To: field. Auto Complete sometimes grabs the wrong ones.
    • Before using a distribution list, verify who is in it. These are convenient, but can easily flood email boxes with unnecessary emails, so use sparingly.
    • Avoid the Reply To All option whenever possible. Make sure your message only goes to those who need to receive it.
  • The War and Peace message – Your message is simply too long.
    • Identify the specific action you want the receiver to take and start with that. Any part of the email that doesn’t support this objective is fluff.
    • If you find yourself needing to provide lots of detail, break things up. Use bullets, numbered lists, or headings to separate big chunks of text into more digestible pieces.
    • Consider just picking up the phone. It’s hard to convey emotion and nuance in an email. Sometimes and old-fashioned discussion is the best way to communicate.

Liquid Paper is still made today, though it’s used primarily for covering up mistakes in handwritten correspondence than anything else. It seems we can’t get away from the occasional goof-up no matter what medium we communicate in. Thankfully, we can all learn from our mistakes correct them ourselves.

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