Natalie Haynes: Want to get ahead in business? Then learn how to spell

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The Independent Online

In tomorrow night's grand final of The Apprentice, Lord Sugar will finally pick his business partner: the eager young wannabe who has made it through the seemingly impossible task of listening to 12 weeks of constant business-speak without once punching someone who uses their skillset, steps up to the challenge, or gives it 110 per cent.

He'd better hope that the winning candidate has, among other things, a dictionary to hand. This week, the entrepreneur Charles Duncombe suggested that poor spelling costs online businesses millions of pounds. His research revealed that we are deeply suspicious of shoddy spelling and poor grammar when we see it on websites. We may be very forgiving about "could of" in real life, but we are far less tolerant of it in print, especially when our cash is at stake. Duncombe pointed out that 99 per cent of internet commerce uses the written word, and "often these cutting-edge companies depend upon old-fashioned skills". He identified the impact a single spelling error could have on online sales by measuring the revenues at the website. When the typo disappeared from the relevant page, the revenue doubled. Those are the kind of sales increases that Lord Sugar loves, and all down to decent spelling and proofreading.

So whoever the new apprentice turns out to be, he or she needs to have the basic skills. Jim very nearly met his Waterloo in a Mexican restaurant this week (actually, should that be his Alamo?), when he proved himself unable to do mental arithmetic under pressure. Sixty customers per hour, spending £7 a head, gave him the rather optimistic figure of £4,200 an hour. And that was after geography had eluded him: I'm no world traveller, but even I would probably hesitate to call a Mexican restaurant Caraca's.

Meanwhile, Helen and Tom, who has distinguished himself by being the first Apprentice candidate in living memory to have read a newspaper and retained its contents, were finding famous Britons to give names to their tasty pies. The Drake pie was named after William Drake (a hybrid between Francis Drake and William Blake, I presume); the Nightingale after Florence Nightingale (it was the vegetarian pie, obviously, and therefore girly); and the Columbus after Christopher Columbus, whom they believed was British, and had discovered the potato. In which case, they should really have named the mash after him instead.

One could certainly argue that neither knowledge of the capital of Venezuela nor a list of historical Brits is something an entrepreneur needed from the school system. But a couple of weeks ago, The Apprentice went to Paris so the candidates could try their skills abroad. Of the eight contestants competing, only one could speak French. And she was born in Iran.

While the others mocked Melody's constant bragging about her global business and her five languages, none of them seemed to realise that she was, in business terms, streets ahead. When it comes to hiring and firing, the candidate who can communicate with people in more than one language has a massive advantage.

The Apprentice has consistently shown up weaknesses in our educational system: it showcases people who are bright and hard-working, who pride themselves on their leadership skills and money-making potential. But, all too often, it also reveals them to be depressingly ignorant of everything outside their limited interpretation of the business world.

So, with another series on the cards, hopeful candidates had better start brushing up on their spelling, second language and sums. Any fule kno it's the way to get ahead in business.