I come across a lot of terrible writing through my job. One e-mail “letter” that I read recently has been bugging me a lot, not just because it’s so awful in terms of grammar and punctuation but because it’s just plain stupid and drives home the fact that, often, when you want something, you mostly need to be coherent and kind to the person you’re asking. I think about this in terms of this letter (we’ll get back to the letter in a minute) but it applies to all kinds of situations.
It applies to the guy who emerged from the parking lot under the highway overpass this week to tell me, although he really didn’t want to bother me, that his car wouldn’t start. He started going into his spiel – my car won’t start, my wife and baby… and I suggested that he, “Walk down the street to the Salvation Army and ask them to use their phone to call for a tow truck.” He started to explain that he didn’t need to use their phone (working up to the fact that he really only needed cash) but I drove away. I’ve heard this exact plea about seven times while in downtown Minneapolis over the years. It makes me wonder if there’s a playbook somewhere called How To Guilt People Into Giving You Money. Play Number One certainly has to be the “Car Broke Down,” ploy. How is it that so many men have used the same story on me? First it’s the car that won’t start, no cell phone, no cash. If that doesn’t work, they up the ante with a trapped wife and child who need to get somewhere, who need to get to Walgreens for some medication, who need to eat right away or they will surely die in the middle of downtown.
I decided that what he should have done was emerge from the darkness and said, “Look, I really need a couple of dollars. If you can’t give me a couple, could I at least have one dollar?” If someone did that, I would at least stop to consider. Plus, it somehow cuts through the bullshit of entitlement the lame story conveys. The lame story says, “You are stupid and I prey upon you but you also owe me money.” The direct ask says, “I don’t have any money and I need some. Could you give me a dollar?” At least we know where we stand.
But back to the letter. I can’t reprint the letter as written, so I will rewrite it using some other scenario but leave the basic context and mistakes. Let’s pretend that this letter is from Yodel Giaz, an upcoming actress and model, who wants to secure a dress from her favorite high-end fashion designer (a man who goes by the name Marvl and owns Marvl Fashion) to wear to an upcoming party. She’s e-mailing him to make “the ask”:
My name is Yodel Giaz I got your name and email address from CoCo Suez in the Glitter office. I am a Model /Actress and will be going to a Party called “This, That & The Other Thing” in new york in may this year,it’s a Ball that take place in new york and celebrate a Charity that does only fundraising for child cancer. the reason why I wanted to talk to you and the people over at Marvl Fashion is I love your clothes and when I live in New York 10 years ago my girlfriends and I fell in love with them. when you see me in pictures you will see that I am someone who can wear a dress, when I accepted the invitation to the party I was planning on it being your dress I appeared in. as I said the party takes place in new york and not just this party but I Will want to go to many parties there and really promote the fashion in new york. Marvl to me is one of the great local things in the city. Please call me when you can I am planning on being in the city this month and go to the party in may. thank you for your time.
Yodel X. Giaz
Parties I Am Going To:
“This, That & The Other Thing”
“Watermelon Eating For Cancer”
“Our Own Biggest Fans”
What is the real subtext of this letter? Me. It may as well say:
Me. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. I’m interesting and important. Me, me, me, me. Did I mention me? By the way, I love your clothing and it would look great on me and give me something. Me, me. Call me but do it within my time frame. Me. Me. Me.
But did you notice, through all the terrible punctuation and grammar, that Yodel never actually spells out what she wants? And what’s in it for Marvl? How will she promote him? Is she asking for a free dress? To borrow a dress? It’s not at all clear and then, in the end, Marvl is supposed to call her. To me, that’s the kiss of death. Ask for something for free (presumably) and then tell the busy person you are asking, “My time is very valuable so I don’t have time to call you. Please call me but remember to do it soon because the party is in May.” It makes the, “Thank you for your time,” at the end seem like a slap in the face.
This is how people try to do business. If you were feeling at all bad about yourself today, but you could rewrite this letter to make it grammatically correct AND interesting AND flattering to Marvl, you’ve got more going on than much of the population.