The Independent, 16 July 2011

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

He’d better hope that the winning candidate has, amongst other talents, 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 tend to view it as an indicator of dubious provenance.

We may be very forgiving about ‘could of’ in real life, in other words, but we turn out to be far less tolerant of it in print, especially when our cash is at stake. Since online retailing is on the increase, this isn’t a problem companies can simply overlook. Duncombe pointed out that 99% of internet commerce uses the written word and, ‘Often these cutting-edge companies depend upon old-fashioned skills’.

Duncombe identified the impact a single spelling error could have on online sales, by measuring the revenues at the website (for which the tagline is disappointingly ‘Great legwear, no legwork’, and not ‘For women who like hosiery, and courtesy’). 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 make sure to have basic skills intact. 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. 60 customers per hour, spending £7 a head, gave him the rather optimistic figure of £4200 of revenue 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 Caracas.

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. Or possibly their favourite gender of duck); 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 a working 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 bargaining skills abroad. Of the eight contestants who were competing in the task, only one could speak French. And she was born in Iran.

While the other candidates mocked Melody’s constant bragging about her global business and her five languages, none of them seemed to realise that she and Susan (who was born in China, so has a couple of languages under her belt too) were, in business terms, streets ahead. When it comes to hiring and firing, which is what the show is all about, 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, since another series of The Apprentice is on the cards, let’s hope the hopeful candidates are brushing up on their spelling, their second language, and their sums. Any fule kno it’s the way to get ahead in business.