Chary about business reports

Back when I was earning a nefarious living as a software consultant I wrote a lot of reports for clients, hundreds of the things. Most of these reports were for retail banks, investment banks, investment companies and stock traders, because Sydney is chock-a-block full of financial institutions and they have bigger budgets than anyone. The job of any good consultant in Sydney is to harvest as much money as possible from the financials or, if you prefer easy pickings, government departments.

But there was a problem. People said my reports were too chatty.

If you've ever read a business report, you'll know they're soporific, mostly because of the utter lack of imagination, the absolute insistence on cliches, stock phrases, and the mindless repetition of the dogma du jour from whoever's pushing the latest braindead business philosophy.

It wasn't in me to write BusinessSpeak. My reports bore a remarkable resemblance to the style of this blog. Some people appreciated it, and when they did it paid off big time, but many didn't.

Once when I did a job for LittleBank, I wrote a report in which I said, amongst many other things, that I was chary about the settings in their database system. I duly delivered the report. Days later, the client calls. He says chary is not a word. There were pages and pages of important technical stuff in the report, but what worries him is the word chary. Somewhat bemused, I assured him chary was a word, told him the meaning, and gave him the reference in the OED. Then I ask if he had any other problems with the report. He says no.

Months later, the accounts people tell me the client doesn't want to pay the bill because there's a problem with the report. Very surprised, I call and ask. Did I make a bad error? Did they follow my advice and the system melted down? No. They haven't followed any of my advice. The problem is chary is not a word.

So I changed chary to worried, sent them a new copy, and they paid the bill.

This was my fault, because I hadn't correctly written for my target audience. But sometimes the client would be happy and still weirdness would result. Such was the case for The Report That Refused To Die.

At one point I did a highly important report for BigBank. BigBank had a major system running across thousands of branches, which they desperately needed to move from one operating system to another, quite different one. Such a move is called porting the software, or doing a port. I wrote a hyper-detailed description of what they'd need to do, and gave it the title Any Port In A Storm. It was an in-joke, and I'd peppered the text with jokes because otherwise it was about 200 pages of solid detail. It needed something to lighten it. Besides, it was an internal document, I knew everyone who'd be reading it, and I was sure they'd be cool. And so they were.

Months pass.

I start getting calls from all sorts of companies who want to talk to me. It seems BigBank has put the project out to tender, and a large slab of the tender document is Any Port In A Storm, jokes included, all written in my own unique style. All across Asia and the Indian subcontinent, technical guys were thumbing through my text. I hope they laughed at the funny bits.

BigBank choked on all the quotes which came in for the port, cancelled the project, and that was that.

Many years later I and another consultant were asked out of the blue to meet with Big US Outsourcer. They start quizzing us about BigBank's problem system. In fact they display surprisingly detailed knowledge of it. The customer account guy from Big US Outsourcer opens his briefcase, pulls out a well-thumbed photocopy, and tosses it on the table. It's Any Port In A Storm.

Bemused, I ask where did they get that report? BigBank had passed it along. I am astonished BigBank hadn't lost every copy. But no, the project is resurrected and the document is doing the rounds of a huge list of people in the US looking at this problem. The fact that the report is now years out of date is irrelevant. It seems Any Port In A Storm is bestseller material.

Big US Outsourcer wants to charge ten times what the previous quotes had come in at years before.

BigBank choked on the quote from Big US Outsourcer, and that was that.

Years passed. I moved on to other things.

One day I get a call from a consultant. Had I written something called Any Port In A Storm? Yes I had, I say, stifling my laughter, ten years ago.

This time it happened, they actually got it ported. But Any Port In A Storm was so totally out of date they did it a different way.

That report is easily my highest print run publication ever.

This post was written to the tune of Que Sera Sera by Doris Day. I told you my music list was eclectic.


Mimzy said...

I can feel your pain. I'm currently studying to become an Environmental Engineer (one and a half more years!!!) and I've already met the bane of my educational career. It isn't calculus, it isn't physics, it even isn't Hydrodynamics with all the insanely overcomplicated equations to figure out where water moves (down).

It's technical writing.

I took it two semesters ago as my 'easy' class to break up all the math and science. Usually my easy class is actually from the English department, but this one had the bonus of actually being required for my major. Class starts, I zone out as the Professor begins to lecture us about grammar, and see that in two weeks the first of many technical writings are due. I figure, what the hell, get it done early for once! Do it, proof read it, hand it in, forget about it. A week after it's been handed in it comes back as a C.

I'm horrified. I go to the Professor, ask him what I did wrong. Did I manage to completely misunderstand the project? Did I break every rule of grammar? Was my spell check broken?

No, he tells me with disdain, my paper was chatty! It sounded like someone was just telling you the information! And that, young lady, will not do.

To make a long story short I somehow managed to bleed every ounce of creativity from my writing, sucking it dry. By the time I was done, my reports sounding like robots had written them. And yet for all my hard work I only managed to pull off a B in the class.

Last semester, my friend Kimo took the same class. He got an A and told me how easy it was. I was forced to hit him. Really hard.

Carrie said...

I have a boring comment. Doris Day isn't eclectic. She's necessary. Thank you for reminding me why I can't do technical writing (head explodes).

Take care.

RWMG said...

Fortunately, at work I am the language god. If I say it's a word, it's a word. If anyone ever told me chary was not a word, they would feel extremely chary every time they saw me. The most they can get away with is "I don't think the client will understand this word," which usually means "I am panicking because I don't understand this word."

Gary Corby said...

Hey Mimzy,

Yes, that is precisely the problem. We even both got the same adjective for our reports: chatty.

You're not my long lost sister by any chance, are you?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Robert,

I have this delightful image of you explaining to my former client that chary is a word.

I could have used your services back then.

Jen C said...

Sigh. That reminds me of this one time, at year 10 school camp, when we were playing scrabble. I made a game-winning move with the word "ditty" and my fellow players decided I had made it up. So they went to our English teacher and asked her - and she said it wasn't a word! So I was unfairly disqualified. Oh, the injustice!