The Most Underestimated, Undervalued and Needed Skill in Business
Good Writing – Part 2
Imagine this. An employee has to write a proposal for a prospective client. The proposal is not something that can be copied from something else online or taken from another sample. Now imagine that the proposal goes out to the prospective client, filled with spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. In the proposal, the company’s values and services are unclear. How would that employee’s manager feel if he got wind of that document? Embarrassed? Humiliated? How would that proposal affect the company’s ability to land that client? How would that proposal impact that employee’s upward mobility?
Good writing skills are imperative for any professional’s toolbox. In business, there are letters, memos, reports, presentations, company publications, emails, advertisements, speeches, press releases, proposals, five-year plans, and so much more which must be written. Each document needs to be clear, concise, grammatically correct, and fluid. Each written piece should engage the attention of the intended audience, fulfill the intended purpose – whether it is to persuade, inform or engage -- and conclude effectively. An employee’s writing skills represents the company or organization for which he or she works. If the writing is not professional and clear, it reflects poorly on the company. But good writing also serves other business purposes as well.
Why is Good Writing the most Important Business Skill?
Even the most talented, acclaimed writers struggle with writing well. As Mark Twain once quipped, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” In business, good writing is needed for everything from strategy memos and talking points to stakeholder letters and emails. The key is for the writing to be good…. As in clear, concise, cohesive and impactful. Good writing helps a business in a number of ways.
1. Heightened Clarity
As business becomes more complex and intricate thanks to the global marketplace (time zones, languages, diversity, etc.) and technology, writing helps to clarify what is needed from employees, when, where, how and why. First, it helps management to clarify its needs. Then, those clearly written goals and processes ensure that everyone else knows what is expected, thereby reducing the opportunity for costly misunderstandings or wasted resources.
2. More Focus
As organizations get bigger, with multiple offices or locations, it is increasingly more difficult to ensure that everyone within the company is ‘on the same page’. Cohesiveness of service and quality often boils down to how well a business can get all of its employees to remain focused on what matters most to that firm. And that often boils down to how well those within the organization can convey those priorities to everyone, everywhere. To maximize focus, good managers put the information in writing so that all staff is literally ‘reading the same page.’
3. Increased Credibility
A simple turn of phrase, attention to detail, tone, and proper use of basic grammar rules can send a powerful first, second, third impression--in any industry or profession.
4. Greater Accountability
This is the reason that will resonate with top leadership as well as the bean counters. As the complexity and interconnectedness of businesses increase, good writing helps to increase accountability. A manager’s written work product can hold members of the team responsible when they execute on the clearly articulated, unambiguous vision described in a document. From product requirement documents, FAQs, and presentations to white papers, manufacturing specifications, and branding and style guidelines, well-written business documents crystallize the vision and mission. Clear writing helps describe the goals and tasks so everyone starts and stays on the right path.
5. Consummate Professionalism
Those who don’t value good writing as a work skill should consider that it is a very important skill for individual professional growth as well. Being able to put together a well-written profile, bio or resume not only reflects on the person, but it can have a profound impact on career advancement. A bad resume or a poorly written bio sends a message to the world that the person is not as educated, intelligent and attentive to details as the person’s education and experience might indicate. A well written resume conveys that the person understands that anything worth doing is worth doing right.
Ramping Up the Writing Skills
Given how important good writing is to business and how it cuts across industries and positions, how can a business help its current employees to become better writers? After all, not every company can be like T. Rowe Price (see Part 1 of this article) and teach its new hires how to write clearly, cohesively and succinctly. Few companies can afford that expense, even if it would deliver a significant return to the bottom line.
Moreover, writing for business has certain tricks and constraints of its own. The writer must think about his audience (is this for a customer, potential customer, internal customer, boss, direct report, etc.). The writer also has to consider style and tone. The tone used by an employee at Southwest Airlines writing to a customer (professional but playful and personal) should be very different from the tone and style used by the CEO of an investment bank writing to its shareholders. These are factors that are hard to nail down, even for professional writers. In business, writing is inextricably tied to a company’s identity. What does the company represent? Where is the company headed? How should the company be presented to the public? There are many nuances to consider.
That said, there are things any company can do to improve its employees’ writing abilities in general.
1. Provide Editing Support
Good writing is authentic, approachable, engaging...and, as a result, memorable. Writers become good writers by writing (the old adage of practice makes perfect definitely applies to writing). Having written work reviewed by someone who can give feedback helps. Since for many that did not happen in grade school or college, proactive employers can provide that positive guidance within the workplace. Having one or a few (depending on the size of the company) top-notch writers on staff -- who can and are willing to constructively edit others’ work product – can go a long way to improving written communication across the board for an entire organization.
2. Encourage Reading
Good writers usually love to read. Good writers read good writing and it helps them become even better writers. Exposure to quality writing impacts the reader’s own ability to write. To encourage reading amongst employees, a company can start a company book group. Many books also offer great lessons for anyone in business. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” is a well-written book with some valuable lessons about why some business ideas or products fail or flounder while others soar. NPR and the New York Times both offer suggestions on books that would be valuable for business and also are good reads.
3. Offer Professional Guidance
Good writing is clear and succinct. One of the most effective speeches in U.S. history, President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, was only 701 words. Of those, 505 were words of one syllable and 122 had two syllables. Less is more. Simplicity is elegant. Yet even the most basic rules of writing can be unclear. As Kyle Wiens of iFixit humorously put it, “Prepositions aren’t something you should end a sentence with. Also, you should never start a sentence with ’because.’ Why not? Because. Sentence fragments are unforgivable. Unless they’re not.” So, to learn how to write well, it helps to consult professionals. There are sources, such as the following blogs: The Creative Penn, Draft, Writer Unboxed, Live Write Thrive, The Writer’s Alley, and The Write Conversation, where seasoned grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, and novelists share writing tips and tricks. Recommend such resources to employees.
4. Provide Writing Resources
Anyone who has to write for work – which is basically most everyone – should have the proper writing resources readily available. A solid Dictionary. A hefty Thesaurus. A copy of Elements of Style by Strunk and White (which is a book about grammar, not fashion). While a Dictionary and Thesaurus can be accessed online, it can often be quite distracting to open a browser and do a search just to find a synonym or antonym. It is easier if the resource is at the person’s fingertips.
5. Reward Good Writing
It helps if a business demonstrates that being a good communicator is a career asset.
Remember, the person who is able to be eloquent in all written communication – from blogging to social media to corporate memos -- is the one who will stand out amongst coworkers, colleagues and customers alike. It’s not just the early bird, but the one who can communicate best, that is most likely to get the worm.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"Words are a lens to focus one’s mind." Ayn Rand