On my way to presenting an Eloquence workshop late last year, I collected a hire car and enjoyed banter with the young employee as he walked around the car scratching notes onto his clipboard.
He distractedly asked what I was in town for, and when I explained that I was delivering a workshop to help a team of business people sharpen their writing skills, he looked up from his clipboard and gave me his full attention.
‘That will be soooo needed in a couple of years,’ he said. ‘None of us can write at uni.’
He went on to tell me that he was studying marketing and that he learned how to write professional emails and letters from his Spanish housemate’s book – one that was designed for students who learn English as a second language.
‘We never learn any of that stuff at uni,’ he said.
It’s well documented that graduates enter the workplace with insufficient writing skills (one of my favourite reports on this subject is titled ‘Why Johnny can’t write even though he went to Princeton’). Business subjects at universities emphasise qualitative skills and very few tertiary programs offer any kind of tuition on the basics of strong and effective writing. If anything, the university system tends to reward the effort expended in producing a higher volume of words, which does nothing to alert students to the power of succinct and precise prose.
It is little surprise that many graduates enter the workplace without realising that effective writing is a crucial and core skill for career success. (Another series of research shows that it is naturally the case that people who are able to articulate their ideas, plans, strategies and arguments in the most persuasive, engaging and articulate way do enjoy accelerated career success.)
It’s up to business managers to make it clear to graduates, and all new employees for that matter, that strong writing skills are necessary, and that communication skills are considered an important measure of success. Training should be provided not only to encourage clear and concise language and expression, but also to reiterate the basics of grammar, spelling and etiquette, because many graduates have gaping holes in what may be assumed knowledge. One human resources manager I spoke with from an ASX-listed company received this one-line email from a junior employee about an interview for an internal job promotion: “Wot time R we meeting tmrw : -)”. This generation of employees who’ve grown up on text messaging might benefit from a formal lesson on what’s appropriate in workplace emails.
Managers have an important role as writing mentors, and should take the time to offer specific feedback on how to improve a piece of writing – preferably in a way that is consistent with any training the graduates have participated in, and also referencing an internal company style guide.
What is also crucial is that managers model strong writing skills as this will set the standard expected. Of course this also means bad writing by senior people will be emulated.
The challenge, of course, is that many of the managers who have come into the workforce over the past years and decades have come through the same schooling and university system as the graduates that come after them.
It is encouraging for managers to know that when they take the time to write in a clear, concise and persuasive way, and review their work to check facts and correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, that their efforts will not only be appreciated by their intended readers, but that they are also contributing to a culture of strong writing within their organisation.