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Posted on 07.17.2012

Learning the hard way: Embarrassing but memorable mistakes

I spoke to a group of successful business women the other day. While reflecting on critical events in my life that helped shape my career, I was reminded of a particularly memorable (and embarrassing) moment in my young career. It was painful at the time, but it trained me to be conscientious about fact checking and accuracy - something rather important in my business. The room was in stitches when I recounted my story, and it felt good to reminisce about what I had learned:

I was a shy kid. I can't imagine what made me think I could be a professional communicator, but somehow I got a job right out of college as a newspaper reporter at what was then the afternoon paper, The Nashville Banner.

Of course, I was just a "cub" reporter. And, at that time, the cub reporter at the Banner was required to show up at 6:45 a.m. and write obituaries (the OBITS.) In fact, I had to call up all the families of the recently deceased and ask them what I considered very painful questions: Where and what time is the funeral?What church did they belong to? Who were the survivors? Did they want to say in the obit how the loved one had died? Frankly, I wanted to die...every morning. To this 21-year old, it was excruciating.

Not too many years before, I had moved to Nashville, Tenn., from New Jersey, and I just had not quite perfected the art of understanding a variety of Southern accents, especially the accents in some areas of rural Tennessee. In fact, occasionally on these gruesome phone calls, I'd ask people to repeat themselves so many times they'd literally hang up on me.

One day, I was at my desk in the City Room working on a "real" story, having finished the obits. All of a sudden the very gruff, very loud, smoke-throated Editor of the City Desk Brad Carlisle hollered out, "Paula, get up here."

Simultaneously, everyone's heads popped up from their typewriters (yes, we're talking real typewriters, the manual kind, no less.)

"Get up here," he hollered again.

So I ran to his desk in the middle of the large, smoky room, and he said in a blasting voice (definitely designed to humiliate me), "What in the HELL is the Three Wheel Baptist Church??!!!"

The entire newsroom guffawed. And for years, when I ran into Banner greats like Pinckney Keel and Larry Brinton, they asked me if I'd decided join the "Three Wheel Baptist Church."

I can't imagine why I didn't check my facts, when I clearly did not understand the gentleman on the phone, and I will never forget what this taught me about writing and communications. I've referred it for a lifetime, and my motto is printed on the wall in our office: "Assume Nothing."

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