How The Oscars can teach us how to communicate

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 14th April 2021

And the award for best picture goes to…La La Land’.

Oops! Many of you will remember the terrible gaffe at the 2017 Academy Awards where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong winner for the Best Picture award. It should have been Moonlight, and of course, it was Moonlight when the error was corrected.

Many blamed Warren and Faye for the mistake, but a deeper look at the events that led to the mistake proved that they were not to blame, but instead bad system design was*. Various small decisions and mistakes culminated to deliver the final embarrassment, but one stood out to me as something that probably happens in our business lives everyday and could so easily be avoided.

It turned out that Warren Beatty was given the wrong card as he walked onstage – he was given the card from the previous award for Best Actress, who was the star of La La Land. I believe that they sensed something was wrong, but they read out what was in front of them, which was incorrect. Who could blame them when they were in front of millions of viewers, even if they did suspect an error?

One of the big issues was the typesetting on the card. It looked like this:

The first thing you’ll notice is the biggest word on the card is The Oscars, which is very nice from a branding point of view, but did not add any value in this situation. The name of the actress and the movie were in text that was the same size, making it hard to tell which piece of information had priority. Finally, the critical piece of information, the fact that this was the award for Best Actress, was hidden down the bottom of the card in small font. If Warren and Faye had have seen this more clearly, they may have stopped before they announced the wrong winner.

A simple redesign of the card would have made it much easier for someone under pressure to see there was an obvious mistake.

Now, think about how often you receive emails or communications that don’t organise the key information to make it easy for you, the reader. My friend Paul Jones, who specialises in business writing, always says ‘Make it easy for the reader’.

When you send an email, do you take the time to make sure the communication is clear, that the key information has priority, and that critical information is not hidden below the line in small print? It is so worth taking the time to craft good communications, as they save your colleagues time and effort, and in turn this saves you time and effort as you spend less time mopping up mistakes.

OK, I am off to watch La La Land. Or should I watch Moonlight?

* This piece was inspired by a brilliant podcast by Tim Harford called Cautionary Tales. Well worth a listen.

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