The promise of speed

I am an avid reader of science for public consumption. I am also an observer of ads in different media. Let’s face it, most of us dislike commercial messages interrupting our favorite TV show, but it’s a love-hate relationship. We want to be entertained more than informed.

One particular area of advertorial entertainment is the slew of auto insurance ads on TV. Shticks abound, such as the Farmers Insurance University with talented J.K. Simmons as their instructor with characteristic dry humor. Then there’s Dennis Haysbert in the Allstate spots, but he’s too serious for my taste. However, Allstate has Dean Winters, the very funny “Mayhem like me” star. Let’s not forget two of my least admirable characters —Flo of the Progressive ads and that irritating reptile in the Geico commercials.

For the State Farm singing skits, I haven’t forgotten them. “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!” I am sure many people find all of these entertaining and valuable in different degrees. They all promise one thing: comprehensive insurance that is easy on the wallet. And speed in taking care of your insurance claims.

Science shows that serve up facts with a side of personality are big business: Morgan Freeman in Through the Wormhole is one example. His voice lends credence to otherwise dry and dusty facts. I’ve been following Mr. Freeman’s career through several of his memorable and not-so-memorable roles, from The March of the Penguins to the forgettable Wanted. It’s the delivery, the cadence of voice that brings in a spectator, a reader, a buyer.

How do you want to capture your listener’s attention? You speak more slowly, with added emphasis in subtle ways. The opposite is true if you want to scare away listeners or viewers. Consider this: how many times have you understood the speech of the actor reciting the legal disclaimers in those TV commercials? Have you ever bothered to read the legal disclaimers in the same commercials? Why not? The font is too small, even in a big flat screen TV.

What does this say about the speed of delivery? Faster is not always better. In fact, faster may act as a repellent instead of an attractant to your ad, your service, your product, your reputation, your brand. You.

I remember an impromptu meeting of engineers, developers and translators at Intergraph in Huntsville, AL, in mid 1999. The manager in charge of software localization wanted to push the simultaneous release of the next version. In the past, he said, software localized (i.e., translated) in foreign languages waited for about 3 months to be released, which affected sales. The decision was then to shorten the localization time, making it a simultaneous delivery of software releases with all its attendant —and unintended— consequences.

Shortly after leaving the company, I still recalled that episode as an event where speed was more important than excellence. Faster deliveries seem to guarantee faster deals and shorter sales cycles. The cellphone industry is one prime example: Samsung brings to market a new model every 2-3 weeks by my calculation. In contrast, Apple debuts a new cellphone model once a year. Yet the iPhone’s market share is 15%. Not bad for a phone introduced in 2007. Nokia and RIM’s Blackberry, however, have been losing market share over the last few years. Yet the market pressures to come up with new models ever so often are too great to ignore, and the temptation to speed up products is very great.

Along with these faster products, documentation in multiple languages is rushed out the door. Unlike math calculations, that computer can perform increasingly fast, documents can’t be written in infinitely shorter times. Consider a short email of 10 words…you still need at least 30 seconds to write it. Maybe you type fast and can send out a 10-word message in 10 seconds. Good for you. Was that enough time to think about it? Maybe, maybe not. If all you needed to do was to acknowledge receipt of an important piece of information, all you had to do is type “Yes” and hit the Reply button. Nothing to think about. However, we can all agree that some of the most troublesome and dangerous emails contain a few words and were thoughtlessly sent out in the Internet ether. Once sent, you cannot easily undo it. So much for the benefits of speed.

Speaking of emails, I am reminded of a classical Apple ad published in 1985. Back then, modems were just a little faster than walking by today’s standards, but the capability of 1200 bits/second was a blazing speed at the time. Apple promises instant access in the ad published in the June 1985 issue of National Geographic:


Apple promises instant access by using an Apple modem with the Apple II computer.

The concept of speed has become the concept of now. But this is nothing new. A proverb such as The early bird gets the worm accentuates the virtue of speed. But, is this really a virtue? Is it really advantageous to rise early always? I recently closed one of my most “productive” days last Friday by clocking in at 5 a.m. and clocking out at 40 minutes past midnight. I handled at least 4 projects in 4 different platforms, from SDL Trados to Adobe Illustrator. Was I feeling proud of myself? Sure. But nature charged me extra for the privilege by making me sleep in the next day: I woke up at 10:30 a.m.

That is not to say that promising speed does not have its place in business. Four days ago, one of my customers required a quick turnaround inside 21 hours for a 25,000-word project and offered me a portion of it. I ventured to offer up to 9,000 words in that timeframe, which was humanly possible and professionally feasible to me. Did I deliver on time? You bet. But that meant sleeping only 2 hours to meet the deadline without putting my mental abilities at risk.

We all know our strengths and weaknesses. We can be speed demons in some tasks and slow as a snail walkers in others, and that’s good. Our minds and bodies tell us, if we listen, when we can push ourselves to the limit and deliver in a speedy yet responsible fashion without abandoning excellence. Please notice that I haven’t used the word quality, not even once. I prefer excellence.

Today, where speed is king, let’s pause for a moment, smell the roses, take a cup of joe and consider that excellence is best achieved with calculated, measured pace. Suetonius’ invitation, Festina lente (more haste, less speed) could be more relevant today than we think.


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Filed under Advertising, Reputation, The business of translation

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