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How to avoid repeating mistakes

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George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.” Who hasn’t sent out an agenda where the day and the date don’t match? Who hasn’t misspelled a person’s name in correspondence? Who hasn’t forwarded an e-mail that resulted in embarrassment? This article deals with common mistakes not-for-profit organization staff and volunteers make and suggestions on how to avoid making them again.

1. Reusing agendas, minutes, Excel® spreadsheets

Many of us use the shortcut of taking the last document and revising it to create a new one. This is asking for problems. However, if you must...

How to avoid the mistake:

  • Before typing one new word or even deleting the old text, hit “Save As” so that you do not save over your last document. It’s the only way!
  • Train yourself to change the dates, locations, names and header/footers first.
  • If you are reusing an Excel® document, ensure that the formulas are kept, changed or added to additional text before getting into the details of your work.

2. Not matching the day to the date

Who hasn’t sent out an agenda where the day and the date do not match?

How to avoid the mistake:

There is only one surefire way: double check. Always double check against a reliable calendar.

3. Forgetting to number document pages or date a document

If you have experienced the frustration of committee members who are trying to discuss the report you prepared but are challenged because they cannot refer to a page number, you know this is a no no.

How to avoid the mistake:

  • Train yourself to always start a new document by choosing the header/footer, which usually include the page number and date.
  • Do not use the footer date symbol because it may consider it an auto text command and automatically update the date; you must type the date in the footer.

4. Responding or forwarding e-mails

How embarrassing was it when you forwarded an e-mail forgetting that the information in the e-mail thread (the previously shared e-mails) was not appropriate for sharing? How about the time you hit Reply All instead of Reply and wrote a snarky comment about one of the “reply all” recipients?

How to avoid the mistake:

Treat e-mail as you would a letter to your spouse’s divorce lawyer; never write anything in an e-mail that could embarrass you or anyone else. Think before you hit “reply” or “reply to all”. Too many people use “reply all” when “reply” would have sufficed; use “reply all” sparingly.

Another common e-mail mistake is inadvertently sending an e-mail to the wrong person. If this happens, you should acknowledge your mistake to the recipient and ask for their confidence by deleting the e-mail. Slow down when you are sending e-mails!

5. Forgetting the attachments

The e-mail message reads, “attached is the...” but no attachment is offered.

How to avoid the mistake:

When sending an e-mail that requires an attachment, always do the attachment piece first, before you type the e-mail content. It’s a question of discipline.

6. Misspelling names

The member’s name is Barisa; you spelled it Barrisa. Not a biggie, you think? It is to Mr. Barisa!

How to avoid the mistake:

One way to avoid this mistake is to register key names in your spell-check program. The surefire way is to carefully proofread your document for name spelling mistakes. Take the time.

7. Confusing common words

It is very common for people to write “to” when they meant “too” or “two”. Another example is to write “complement” when they meant “compliment” or “it’s” instead of “its”. Spell-check cannot help you most of the time. How do you avoid these mistakes?

How to avoid the mistake:

If you have the habit of making this kind of mistake, then you should get another person to proof your work, or put it away for a few hours and then come back to with an eye for these types of errors.

8. The Table of Contents does not match the page numbers

You added a paragraph and suddenly most of the pages of your document no longer match your table of contents.

How to avoid the mistake:

Use the Word® feature under “Insert” and select “index & tables” and then “table of contents”. That way the program finds the right page number and it usually doesn’t make human mistakes.

9. Appendix B comes before Appendix A in the document

You decided that Appendix A would be the list of members/donors. Then you decided that you should refer to your bylaws before dealing with the list of members, so you call your bylaws Appendix B. The reader finds Appendix B referred to first and wonders where Appendix A went?

How to avoid the mistake:

As you are creating your report, keep a list of appendices as they are assigned. When your report is done, read it with an eye to how the reference to appendices flows. If you have read this article up to this point, you will realize that you will need to read your report several times over using different filters:

  • Look for dates and times
  • Look for correct spelling of names
  • Look for page numbers matching the table of contents
  • Look for the appendices lining up

10. Numbering items that should be listed

You like numbered lists; it gives you a feeling of control. However, in some circumstances your list should have bullets not numbers.

How to avoid the mistake:

Numbering implies either a sequence or an order of priority. A list that contains items of equal importance should just be bulleted. Remember this. Remember, too, to use bullets consistently, lest the reader can’t gage the importance of your different looking sub-bullets.

11. A typo in your document title

Your document title reads “What Members Say They Value about There ACME Membership”. Spell-check won’t save you.

How to avoid the mistake:

Professional proofreaders say that the most common place for a mistake is in the title because people do them quickly, often at the last minute, and do not take the time to review them carefully for mistakes.

12. Mixing up a numbering system

Some are written as numbers (4, 5 6) and others are written out in full (four, five, six).

How to avoid the mistake:

Follow the rules: When using numbers in the body of text, one to ten should be written in words; 11 and higher can be presented wearing their number suit, unless the number starts a new sentence and then it needs to be the word.

13. Inconsistent punctuation at the end of a list

Some lists have semicolons after each item, some have commas and some have nothing. Those that have nothing often show a period at the end of the last item on the list.

How to avoid the mistake:

Pick a system and stick with it. Less in more in our modern society and you may not want to use punctuation at the end of your listed items. However, only if you use punctuation on your list should the last item end with a period signifying this is the end of the list.

14. Adding two spaces at the end of a sentence after a period

If you are like me, you were taught to leave two spaces between sentences. That is because we were trained when Courier was the font of choice.

How to avoid the mistake:

With today’s computer technology and myriad of fonts, professional proofreaders will change your two spaces to one! Retrain yourself to leave only one space.

15. Transposing numbers

I can’t believe there is a person on the planet that has never transposed a number. It happens.

How to avoid the mistake:

Again, go over your final document with an eagle eye. Use Excel® to prepare numerical information so that the program can verify your additions, etc. And remember, when using Excel®, a common error is to add a row to the end of a column, but then not include that row in the formulas so it isn’t included in the math.

16. Using acronyms

While people in your orbit know what your “ACME” acronym means, is there a possibility someone who doesn’t know will want to read your document?

How to avoid the mistake:

Always do the right thing. Always write the name in full of an acronym the first time you use it and follow that with the acronym in brackets. Then you are free to use the acronym.

17. Calling Mrs. Mr.

You have a unique name - you’re lucky. But do you feel lucky when correspondence comes addressed to you as Mr. when in fact you are a Ms.?

How to avoid the mistake:

If there is uncertainty as to the gender of the recipient it is appropriate to refrain from using Mr. Mrs. or Ms.

18. Letter to James London - Dear Bob:

You used the letter to Bob to create the same letter for James but you forgot to change the “Dear Bob” part.

How to avoid the mistake:

As before, if you are using a previous document, change the names before you do anything else. You know how easy it is to make this mistake and how embarrassing it is when you do it (again).

19. You hit send as soon as you have finished your e-mail on your PDA

Those of us who have mastered typing with two thumbs know it directly impacts the incidence of error.

How to avoid this mistake:

Always re-read your e-mails - on your desktop, laptop or PDA. Always. Then you can hit “Send”.

20. TO MAKE YOUR POINT YOU USE ALL CAPS AND LOTS OF THEM!!!!!

Never never use all caps in an e-mail. In today’s etiquette it is extremely rude.

How to avoid this mistake:

In business, one should never use ! or CAPS. You must master the art of letting your words describe your mood without using the “!!!” or “CAPS”. It’s gauche.

21. Your back-to-back copies are backwards

You programmed the copier to produce 100 copies of your report back-to-back and when you return you find the back pages are upside down!

How to avoid the mistake:

When programming back-to-back copying, always do a test run to ensure the back copy is in the same direction as the front and that the staple is in the top left hand corner where you want it (it is not trendy to have the staple at the bottom - do you really think anyone believed that?).

22. Forgetting to use a subject line in an e-mail

You receive an e-mail and the subject line reads “Re:” Re: what?

How to avoid the mistake:

Train yourself to write your subject line before you create the base content of your e-mail. Always.

23. The committee distribution list was last year’s committee list

The package to the board was e-mailed to last year’s board member, and just your luck, it had sensitive information in it.

How to avoid the mistake:

Always update all distribution lists the moment you are notified of a change. Stop what you are doing and just do it. It’s the only way.

24. Using different fonts

You like variety so you mix up the fonts in one document. Wrong.

How to avoid the mistake:

Try to stick with one font. If you are working on a complex document like a form, restrict yourself to no more than three fonts. Otherwise your readers make feel seasick.

25. Leaving widows all alone

In graphics terminology, a “widow” is word or sentence that appears all alone on the next line or page.

How to avoid the mistake:

Use consistent margins in your main documents and always print your document before sending it on to see how it “looks”. If you created widows, change the margins, edit the copy, do what you have to keep it together on one page.

Much of the advice in the article has to do with common sense and discipline to proofread your work (more than once). We hope it is helpful.

Cullen Hightower said: “Laughing at our mistakes can lengthen our own life. Laughing at someone else's can shorten it."

Good luck.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or Paulette@solutionstudioinc.com.

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