The Write Person for the Job

How do you let a coworker or employee know that they have to fix something? It might be easy to let a little thing slide, but you know, those little things can turn into big things.

When I was in the shopping mall management business, one of my responsibilities was writing the words that shoppers and drivers passing by would see on our outdoor signs. We called them our mall marquees. There were two such signs, big and tall, on opposite sides of our parking lot.

My opportunities for creativity were limited, by the size of the marquee and by my boss. “Passion for Fashion” might have been my high point, creatively speaking, when it came to mall marquees.

One day my regional manager (my boss’s boss) Gil comes into my office and asks “why are we promoting specific mall stores on the marquee?”

Left unsaid in that question was everything relevant, like:

  • Is this a quiz? A response to a situation? Or the beginning to a stimulating philosophical debate?
  • Is that not okay? (actually, I knew that only anchor department stores could even possible warrant such a mention, generally only all three together, and only for an earth-shattering, fashion-forward reason)
  • What did the marquee even say?
  • Which store was mentioned?

With that in mind, I asked Gil “what does the marquee even say?” and “which store was mentioned?”

This was late in the afternoon on Monday, so I had not yet checked out the big board as I left for the day. Since I actually already knew not to promote specific stores on the marquee, I wondered what happened.

Gil leaned in and locked his eyes on mine. “Great Valves Inside.”

Huh? That didn’t really answer my question.

So I added a question mark and repeated “Great valves inside?”

Two can play the echo game, and Gil took his turn.

“Why are we promoting specific mall stores on the marquee?”

“Gil, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why are we promoting the Firestone tire store on our marquee?”

Ah! Finally! Now I get it.  In the out-lot, on the periphery of the mall parking lot, we had a Firestone tire store.

“Gil, I’m not promoting the Firestone tire store….”

Oh! Wait NOW I get it.

“… valves. Great valves. Tires have valves.”

Gil grinned, pleased that his serpentine route to reason had finally arrived at any destination at all.

I took my marquee file from my desk and showed Gil my original work order.

“I wrote ‘Great Values Inside,’ not ‘Great Valves Inside.’”

Gil stared at me. “Who puts up the marquees? You?”

Changing the words on the marquees required a truck with a tall lifty-thingy, and just the fact that I called it that vehicle “a tall lifty-thingy” should make it clear to you that no, I did not actually, physically, put up the marquees.

Wait, I thought, is this a teachable moment? Was mentoring happening? To me? Was Gil trying to teach me an important lesson in mall management, or retail strategy?

So I replied. “Don.” Don worked in our maintenance department and among his regular assignments was updating the marquee.

Now let me mention here that I wasn’t blaming Don. I was just trying to cut through the impenetrable thicket of a conversation in which Gil had trapped me.

Also let me mention that I have really bad handwriting. I hate my handwriting. Mr. Sass, my 6th grade math teacher, was sure that I must be left-handed because my right-handed handwriting was and still is so terrible. If I am left-handed, I have still yet to confirm this.

Also, my marquee worksheets had squares counting how many letters can fit on each side of the board. Old school. And I swear on Mr. Sass’s daily lesson plan that I wrote each letter as painstakingly neatly as I could.

With all that said, you can probably see how a “v” could be mistaken for a “u.”

Also, Gil tended to have a casual, almost whimsical relationship with the truth, I found. Maybe this WAS a test.
And it might be presumptuous of me to think that OF COURSE the mall marquee, which I wrote, says “Great Values Inside” and not “GREAT VALVES INSIDE” BECAUSE WHY WOULD A SHOPPING MALL MARQUEE SAY “GREAT VALVES INSIDE”?
Well, it would if I were promoting the Firestone tire store.
Ah… but the Firestone store was OUTSIDE. This conversation just keeps getting more confusing.
I stood up. “I’ll fix it.”

Gil got up and left, satisfied that his message had been received.

So a couple of lessons here:

  • Good handwriting. Still useful in this day and age, right?
  • Little details can change an entire outcome. Don’t ignore the little details, like making sure there’s a nice fat curve on the bottom of your capital U.
  • Don’t assume the person you’re talking to knows as much about a particular topic, especially an unexpected one, as you do.
  • And another one for you Gil: clear is better than clever. Who knows what great things we might have accomplished during those ten minutes when I was trying to figure out what in the world you were talking about?

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