Stop Careless Mistakes

Author: John Honovich, Published on Oct 06, 2014

Careless mistakes are a big problem, especially among inexperienced people who naively scan, skip or assume.

Whether you are reading a quote, contract, specification, review or recommendation, you need to properly interpret the words / language presented.

In our experience, two causes of carelessness are common:

  • Assume related words are the same: Sophisticated, and often manipulative people, will choose words or groups of words that sound ordinary but mean something completely differently.
  • Skip / omit key qualifiers: Complicated language, especially in technology and engineering, are typically heavily qualified by experts, to be exact. Haste or inexperience often drives people to miss them.

Sometimes people flat out lie and sometimes they are dead wrong. But, most of the time, the correct answer can be found by reading carefully and unpacking the words used.


(1) Consider:

"Our company is engaged in over $200 million in sales."

Many people simply assume the company sold $200 million, as they focus on the word 'sales' but the really important part of that sentence is the 'engaged in' qualifier.

The company is not going to 'marry' money so they are using 'engaged' to most likely mean 'in the process of'.

The reason for this is that most people who puff themselves want to do it without directly lying. This company likely did engage in 'over $200 million in sales' but perhaps they only closed / booked / recognized $1 million of that. And, if called on this, they could retort by saying we never said we 'sold $200 million', we just said we were 'engaged in' it. 

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(2) Consider:

"The camera has a 5MP imager."

Many people assume that this is a 5MP camera, ergo that the camera can deliver a 5MP stream. But notice that the manufacturer qualifies it with the noun 'imager'.

Typically, when this phrase / sentence structure is used, it means the camera outputs less than a 5MP stream, e.g. a 3MP or a 1080p stream is commonplace.

In this case, did the manufacturer intend to mislead? Does the reader simply not have the technical background to distinguish between imager and camera? This is harder to tell.

Regardless of where the fault lies, an experienced professional should spot the qualification and understand the limitations therein.

(3) Consider:

"I want to see 100 feet away. What resolution camera do I need?"

Many people will immediately retort with an answer - HD, 5MP, 10MP, etc. But you need at least one piece, and more likely two, to give an accurate answer.

The most critical is how wide an area one needs. If it is 5 feet wide, the answer is much different than 100 feet wide.

Yet, we have seen this time and again, people jump to conclusions on questions like this. Make sure that you have all the information you need. If you do not, ask for it specifically. Don't say something stupid like 'it depends on the application'. Respond with pointed questions like, "Tell me how wide an area you need to cover and how much details you want to capture?"

(4) Consider:

"Our product reduces storage costs by up to 90%."

Many people will assume that the product reduces storage costs 90%. They simply ignore the qualifier here - "up to"

This has become such a common problem, proved by studies, that the US Federal Trade Commission has stepped in to regulate this. Marketers, in particular, realize the power and therefore see the benefits of using 'up to' claims. The typical benefit may be negligible or minimal, but the careless reader will take away the eye popping up to number as typical.

(5) Consider:

"This camera can replace 10 traditional cameras" or "This camera gives you the same resolution as 10 traditional cameras."

Key in on the verb 'can' in the first sentence and the qualifier 'resolution' in the second.

'Can' typically mean to 'be able to do' something. Many readers will immediately conclude that they will be able to do this, i.e., replace 10 traditional cameras in their scenario. But that is not what the statement is saying. They are not guaranteeing you will be able to do it nor that this will always happen (notice: those qualifiers are not included). In fairness, using the word 'can' like this is similar to the misleading marketing of 'up to' claims but the careful, experienced professional is immediately aware of such concerns.

Secondly, notice that the second sentence includes the qualifier 'the same resolution'. The sentence could have been written "This camera is the same as 10 traditional cameras." However, the added qualifier is key to be 'truthful' yet still trick the careless reader. This also requires some technical knowledge, because amongst surveillance manufacturers resolution is defined as pixel count, not image quality

(6) Consider words like:

"typically", "in general, "most scenarios"

Describing how things work or how things are used can be challenging. Since the world is complex and not everyone uses things in the exact same way, it is important to qualify descriptions with limitations (typically, in general, etc.). Some will skip the qualifier and assume everyone does it this way. Others will find one counter case and conclude the entire statement is wrong. Make sure to note those qualifiers and consider the limitations and application of them.

(7) Consider words like:

"everything", "mandatory", "guaranteed"

To the contrary of point 6 above, sometimes statements include strengthening qualifiers. When these occur, the burden is much higher and the reader should be extra careful that there are no exceptions (especially if they are responding to such statements). Often, inexperienced readers will skip these words, simply assuming 'good enough' or 'close enough' is acceptable. However, when these strengthening qualifiers are included, make sure there are no exceptions.

Stop Being Carelessness

Carelessness is the number #1 problem we have found with inexperienced people. The details, especially in word choice, can make a huge difference in outcomes. Read statement carefully, spot the qualifiers and consider how those impacts what is being asked or claimed.

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