Brown M&M’s and The “Deliverance” House: Why details and first impressions matter

When my wife, Amy, and I went looking for our first house, we had 72 hours to find one and make a decision. We were living in Missouri and I had a job waiting at Ball State University in Indiana three months down the road. We didn’t want to move a bunch of times, so we decided to take one weekend, work with a realtor and get our first place.

The realtor did a great job of setting up dozens of appointments, which made the whole process dizzying for Amy and me. We ended up keeping track of the houses based on things that stuck out in our minds. One house had this immense great room that was filled with infant supplies and toddler toys, thus leading us to call it the “Baby House.” Another must have been owned by a heavy smoker who died months earlier (possibly in the home) and it became the “Smoking House.”

The last house we saw on the first day took the prize, however. The family inside was either renting or squatting and the place was a disaster. Every appliance had about a quarter-inch of grime on it and there was a Ball jar on the stove filled with grease that they used to butter bread.

Kids were everywhere as were piles of clothes and used food items. Doritos were ground into the carpeting on the steps and every bedroom just had a mattress on the floor. It was one of those homes where we kept telling ourselves, “Look past the mess.” However, when we went into the secondary basement, we decided to get the hell out of there.

There was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, sitting in the dark, watching TV while rocking in a rocker. A big horse saddle was next to him on a wooden beam. The real estate agent tried to say something engaging to him. He just stared forward and kept rocking.

Thus, the “Deliverance House” was born.

I thought about that last night, when I was reading through some student journalism contest entries I needed to judge. The candidates for Reporter of the Year were impressive from this particular state and the broadcast reporters in particular were amazing. The first kid, however, had me in a bit of a pickle because I couldn’t get past my first impression.

I read her resume and something in her listing of TV work didn’t look right. I was a bit tired, so I reread this spot about four times before I realized that I wasn’t going crazy. She couldn’t spell:


I did a screen grab and cut off as much of the identifying content from her resume as I could so you could see what I saw. Over THREE positions, she spelled “February” THREE ways. Obviously, only one of them could be right, and I guess you could argue that the third time was the charm. Still, I found myself watching her packages thinking, “If she can’t get this right, what else isn’t right?”

That was the lesson I hope you took from the spot in the writing book where I talked about the Van Halen 1982 tour rider. The band denied this existed for years until The Smoking Gun ended up finding a copy. The rider, which detailed specific needs of the band that went beyond its contract, was 57 pages long and called for all sorts of crazy, tiny items. The famous one was the requirement that the dressing room be stocked with M&M candies, with the admonition, “Warning: absolutely no brown ones.”

The guys in the band later explained that they had a lot of stuff to worry about during a show, such as if instruments would be set up right and if the lighting systems would work properly. If they walked into the dressing room and found the M&M’s and there were no brown ones, the staff at the venue had paid attention to detail and the band could relax about everything else. If the guys found brown M&M’s or no M&M’s, they began to worry about what else might be wrong.

I’m not writing this post to pick on this student, who I have no doubt will have a heck of a good career ahead of her. Truth be told, I once sent in a cover letter where I misspelled the name of the hiring editor in my salutation. (He hired me anyway, but that’s not the point.) The point here is that I hope you can see how something so small, especially in a first impression, can make a difference in the minds of readers, viewers, contest judges and even hiring managers.

As much of a pain as it is to pick at every document and review every comma, know that your work isn’t wasted. Even if nobody notices how clean your work is, at least they won’t notice something negative and get the wrong first impression about you.

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