His most recent column struck a nerve with me. It involves a long-ago meeting Don attended while working on a Japanese account at a large PR firm. I, too, once represented a Japanese client (albeit while working for a midsized agency).
Like me, Don connected with the Japanese. Like me, Don was asked to share his insights with other agency executives who worked on what his firm called The Japan Desk.
In the middle of his de-brief, however, Don used a malaprop. Instead of “full bore”, he said “full boat” (to emphasize how fast things were progressing). The senior executives who, up until that time had been listlessly absorbing Spetner’s advice, smelled blood. “What does full boat mean?” asked one. Don said it meant going full throttle. The same senior executive went for the throat, “Really? I’m an avid sailor and I’ve never heard that term.” The manager, says Spetner, continued to toy with him until Don realized his mistake.
I experienced an almost identical experience early in my career. I was publicizing a special event between Spalding Sporting Goods and the now-defunct Herman’s World of Sporting Goods. My large agency had recently won the project, and my 23-year-old younger self was asked to deliver an internal presentation to the large agency brass.
I was pumped, and early in my review of what we were doing for the Spalding/Herman’s folks, I used the word enervating. “I’m enervated by this program. I believe the client will be enervated, and I’m sure the crowd at the U.S. Open will be as well!” I declared.
Mimicking Spetner’s boss, my senior report yawned, reached his hands behind his back and stretched. He said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting tired,” he moaned. The room burst into laughter. “Yup, it’s positively enervating,” said a second. “I’m enervated,” chimed in a third.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out enervate didn’t mean energized. It meant the exact opposite.
As Don writes in his column, “That incident happened nearly 30 years ago, yet I remember it with great clarity.” He said it used to make him feel angry and embarrassed, but now he feels sorry for the senior manager, and the latter’s need to humiliate a junior staffer in a public setting. Ditto.
Like Don, I take pains to double, and triple, check the accuracy of any unfamiliar word I plan to use in an oral or written presentation. And, unlike our respective bosses, I make a point NOT to publicly humiliate a junior employee when he or she abuses the English language (a far-too-often occurrence in this Millennial-driven industry of ours).
I’ve learned that junior employees sincerely appreciate a private, one-on-one correction (as opposed to a senior executive who goes full bore on them in public). The latter is only being a full boar.