1.10 Case Studies: The Cost of Poor Communication

Suzan Last

This chapter is adapted from Technical Writing Essentials – H5P Edition by Suzan Last licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Learning Objectives

  • Apply your understanding of context, purpose, audience, and channel in case studies.

No one knows exactly how much poor communication costs business, industry and government each year, but estimates suggest billions.  In 2017, Josh Bernoff claimed that the cost of poor communication was nearly $4 billion per year: “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more… America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income” (Meier, 2017).

Poorly-worded or inefficient emails, careless reading or listening to instructions, documents that go unread due to poor design, hastily presenting inaccurate information, sloppy proofreading — all of these examples result in inevitable costs. In one tragic case, a lack of communication between contractors and engineers resulted in a walkway collapse that killed 114 people at the Hyatt Regency.

The waste caused by imprecisely worded regulations or instructions, confusing emails, long-winded memos, ambiguously written contracts, and other examples of poor communication is not as easily identified as the losses caused by a bridge collapse. But the losses are just as real—in reduced productivity, inefficiency, and lost business. In more personal terms, the losses are measured in wasted time, work, money, and ultimately, professional recognition. In extreme cases, losses can be measured in property damage, injuries, and even deaths.

The following cases show how poor communications can have real world costs and consequences.

A.  Read “Case 1: The Unaccepted Current Regulator Proposal”. Then, answer the 5 questions in the quiz set.

CASE 1:  Acme Electric Company

The Acme Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut the electric power consumption in aluminum plants by 35%. They knew that, although the competition was fierce, their regulator could be produced more cheaply, was more reliable, and worked more efficiently than the competitors’ products.

The owner, eager to capture the market, personally but somewhat hastily put together a 120-page proposal to the three major aluminum manufacturers, recommending that their regulators be installed at all company plants.

The first 87 pages of the proposal were devoted to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind the new regulator, and the next 32 pages to descriptions of a new assembly line to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared her regulator’s performance with present models and a poorly drawn graph showed how much the dollar savings would be.

Acme Electric didn’t get the contracts, despite having the best product. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

B.  In small groups, examine one of the following cases and complete the following:

  1. Define the rhetorical situation: Who is communicating to whom about what, how, and why? What was the goal of the communication in each case?
  2. Identify the communication error (poor task or audience analysis? Use of inappropriate language or style? Poor organization or formatting of information? Other?)
  3. Explain what costs/losses were incurred by this problem.
  4. Identify possible solutions or strategies that would have prevented the problem, and what benefits would be derived from implementing solutions or preventing the problem.

Present your findings in a brief, informal presentation to the class.

CASE 2: Petro-chemical company report

Cameron (he/him), a research chemist for a major petro-chemical company, wrote a dense report about some new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil-refining by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was a casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.

Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Cameron’s report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Cameron’s compounds was the safe, economical insecticide they had been looking for.

Cameron had since left the company because he felt that the importance of his research was not being appreciated.

CASE 3: Novaware instruction manual

As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Novaware, Inc. had built a reputation for designing high-quality and user-friendly database and accounting programs for business and industry. When they decided to enter the word-processing market, their engineers designed an effective, versatile, and powerful program that Novaware felt sure would outperform any competitor.

To be sure that their new word-processing program was accurately documented, Novaware asked the senior program designer to supervise writing the instruction manual. The result was a thorough, accurate and precise description of every detail of the program’s operation.

When Novaware began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from office workers who were so confused by the massive manual that they couldn’t even find out how to get started. Then several business journals reviewed the program and judged it “too complicated” and “difficult to learn.” After an impressive start, sales of the new word processing program plummeted.

Novaware eventually put out a new, clearly written training guide that led new users step by step through introductory exercises and told them how to find commands quickly. But the rewrite cost Novaware $350,000, a year’s lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.

CASE 4: Policy memo

Nhi (they/them) supervised 36 professionals in 6 city libraries. To cut the costs of unnecessary overtime, they issued this one-sentence memo to their staff:

When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

After the 36 copies were sent out, Nhi’s office received 26 phone calls asking what the memo meant. What the 10 people who didn’t call about the memo thought is uncertain. It took a week to clarify the new policy.

CASE 5: “Nerds gone wild”

The following excerpt is from Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, itself both a plea for and an excellent example of clear scientific communication:

The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would have been the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was cancelled by Congress in 1993 after about $2 billion had been spent — a worst of both worlds outcome. But this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood what modern high-energy accelerators are for. They are not for weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, called “the theory of everything.” Explanations that involve entities called quarks, charm, flavor, color, etc., sound as if physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view of at least some Congresspeople I’ve talked to, of “nerds gone wild” — which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I’ve read some of the material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it wasn’t too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what the project was about on a level accessible to bright but skeptical non-physicists. If physicists are asking for 10 or 15 billion dollars to build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, metaphors, and capable use of the English language, to justify their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary constraints, and political incompetence, I think this is the key to the failure of the SSC.

CASE 6: Same topic, different genres

Rowan (she/her) was simultaneously enrolled in a university writing course and working as a co-op student at the New Minas Boat Manufacturing plant. As part of her co-op work experience, Rowan shadowed her supervisor/mentor on a safety inspection of the plant, and was asked to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo. In the same week, Rowan’s writing instructor assigned the class to write a narrative essay based on some personal experience. Rowan, trying to be efficient, thought that the plant visit experience could provide the basis for her essay assignment as well.

She wrote the essay first because she was used to writing essays and was pretty good at it. She had never even seen a compliance memo, much less written one, so was not as confident about that task. She began the essay like this:

On June 1, 2018, I conducted a safety audit of the New Minas Boat Manufacturing plant. The purpose of the audit was to ensure that all processes and activities in the plant adhere to safety and handling rules and policies outlined in the Workplace Safety Handbook and relevant government regulations. I was escorted on a 3-hour tour of the facility by…

Rowan finished the essay and submitted it to her writing instructor. She then revised the essay slightly, keeping the introduction the same, and submitted it to her co-op supervisor. She “aced” the essay, getting an A grade, but her co-op supervisor told her that the report was unacceptable and would have to be rewritten – especially the beginning, which should have clearly indicated whether or not the plant was in compliance with safety regulations. Rowan was aghast! She had never heard of putting the “conclusion” at the beginning. She missed the company softball game that Saturday so she could rewrite the report to the satisfaction of her supervisor.


Meier, C. (2017, January 14). The Exorbitant Cost of Poor Writing (About $400 Billion). Medium. https://medium.com/@MeierMarketing/the-exorbitant-cost-of-poor-writing-about-400-billion-973b5a4f0096

Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House.

Exercises adapted from T.M Georges’ Analytical Writing for Science and Technology.T.M. Goerges (1996), Analytical Writing for Science and Technology [Online], Available: https://www.scribd.com/document/96822930/Analytical-Writing


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1.10 Case Studies: The Cost of Poor Communication Copyright © 2021 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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