US$125m disaster underlines need to communicate effectively.

In 1999, a US$125 million space craft was launched - and promptly sailed off into the universe, never to be seen again.

Why? Lack of communication. How effectively we communicate is vital to the success of our business ventures, as the tale of the Mars Orbiter shows.

It was lost because the two engineering teams involved in the project didn't talk to each other well enough. One team used software calculations based on the Imperial system of measurement; the other used the metric system.

The failure to address this basic error led to the Orbiter departing from its intended path and burning up in Mars' atmosphere.


University of Auckland facilitator of the Executive Education course, Business Writing Skills, Nick Read, admits the tale of the Mars Orbiter is at the extreme end of any assessment of the cost of poor communication.

He says while there are few scientific studies purporting to quantify the cost of poor communication - internal and external - to business round the world, the Orbiter case study nevertheless underlines its importance.

An IDC study from 2014 covered 400 companies in the US and UK, finding that firms with 100,000 employees were losing US$62 million a year on average (or $624 per employee) because of communication - but made the point that number did not include revenue lost due to external communications affecting customer service, client acquirement and retention and general sales.

While effective communication is essential for success, our ability to achieve that is impaired by the volume of communication we face.

"The principles of effective communication haven't changed since we were cavemen and women. What has changed is the sheer volume of written communication we have to deal with every day. So we write in haste and read in haste," says Read.

On average, he says, we spend less than four minutes on each of the 123 business emails we deal with daily.

Research by US firm Gartner shows a staggering 70 per cent of mistakes in business are due to poor communication. Meanwhile technology market research firm The Radicati Group's latest Email Statistic Report states a third of emails go unopened.

It's little wonder poor communication can lead to increased stress, poor decision-making, muddied audit trails, legal disputes and business losses.


Clear communication, says Read, can be achieved using a mix of evidence-based tools, techniques and strategies.

His course responds to the demands of busy writers and readers. A five-step process helps writers turn scrambled thoughts into clear, concise, easy-to-read messages. Tips like making subject lines compelling, putting key messages up front and creating clear signposts help guide the busy reader. Tidying up irksome spelling, punctuation and grammar glitches are also part of the workshop.

The course also includes strategies that focus on how our brains interpret information: "Neuroscience confirms that we do not think clearly or logically most of the time. Our thoughts are made up of connected fragments of pictures, memories, emotions," Read says.

"Habits of thinking make it difficult for us to think differently. Neuroscience helps us to create strategies for keeping ourselves resourceful, for thinking outside the box and communicating clearly."

Participants submit writing samples, before and after the course, and are coached on how to make their writing more readable. It is not unusual for low readability scores of around 15 to soar to 50-60 or higher.

"We know people don't have time to untangle our messages to understand them easily - and we can't demand audiences read what we have written. But we can help ensure that what we've written is clear, concise and easy to understand."

"Albert Einstein once said: 'If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough',"

Register for the Executive Education Business Writing Skills course here.