Whatever Happened to Good Business Writing?
I’m embarrassed (for the sender) to report that I received the following email from someone trying to sell my company their product:
Subject: revolusionarry new interent product
Dear prospective buyer,
Do you strive too ensure you’re team are always there most producive? Are you tired of not having axes to rapports on a more time sensitive plan what about managning those who are far from the home office? Do you loose sleep over this or does this keep you up an night?
I won’t bother with the next one hundred seventy-six words of this tragic attempt at a sales pitch, but suffice it to say that it didn’t get any better. And no, we didn’t buy their “revolusionarry new interent product,” which clearly wasn’t a spelling and grammar checker for emails.
Whatever happened to good business writing? Strike that. Whatever happened to below average business writing? It seems we are producing a generation of idiots incapable of stringing six words together to form a sentence.
For managers only concerned with the here and now, there’s no need to read further, you won’t understand the urgency. However, for those who feel compelled, as TheManager does, to release upon society effective future leaders, we need to find a way to solve this mess.
In some ways, this could be the most important issue facing managers today: how do you prepare your charges for the next level. The inability to articulate ones thoughts in-writing could mean the difference between an entry level management position and the CEO office.
Are your current subordinates serving in the last position they’ll ever hold with your company, or do you feel they could someday replace you? (By the way, if you feel like none of them could ever replace you, you should quit immediately – you’re not delivering what your company needs.)
You have to admit it – all of us have received an email or business letter that absolutely made us cringe. When I receive these, three questions come to mind: 1) Has it always been this way? 2) What caused this? And 3) What, if anything, can we do to change it?
Has It Always Been This Way?
In short, no. Prior to the advent of email and text messaging, those with no written communication skills left such endeavors to capable secretarial employees. Today, we feel that because we can, we should.
Stop right there. Just because we are capable of something is never a good reason to do something. Sending incoherent text messages between friends is fine, but please don’t attempt email communication unless you are semi-skilled at writing. You don’t even need to know how to spell, you just need to know how to express your thoughts.
This is not the fault of technology. Users who believe that because they’ve mastered the ability to login, they can do anything, fail to use the available technology (like spell checking) to their advantage. While I applaud their “never say die” attitude, I would be remiss in my duties if I failed to mention that those who screw up a business email look absolutely foolish to the educated and semi-educated masses.
Why shouldn’t we blame technology? It’s simple: technology only removed the paper and the pen; people still provide the ignorance.
What Caused This?
The reasons for the pandemic level of poor written communication skills we see today are not solely created by the ignorant. Truth be told, the ignorant are almost blameless in all this – they are, in fact, ignorant.
The real culprits of this assault on the English language are elementary educators and every thinking person who has ever looked the other way when they receive a business communication written with third grade acumen.
Education is failing American business. While I could write (and someday, might) volumes of articles on this topic, let’s just be satisfied with the knowledge that our public education system is mostly a bureaucratic pile of bitter old men and women who haven’t challenged a student to really think or try since about 1978.
The culprit we can actually do something about is you and me. Because we look the other way when someone (especially someone on our team) creates a written communication that makes us feel embarrassed for them, we are not only contributing to the problem, we are allowing it to grow exponentially.
What Can We Do To Change It?
Those of us with IQs above 99 should rise up and demand better writing from everyone we deal with in our business and our personal life. There is no reason for us to put up with this. As leaders, we need to demand that everyone on our team can communicate using all media available.
When we identify someone with poor written communication skills, we need to act quickly and provide them with the tools to make them seem less foolish to everyone else they contact.
Online business writing courses abound, and might be the best path for the chronically impaired. Expect to spend upwards of $200 for a truly quality course that provides ample instructor feedback. While there are a few free courses available online, please remember that you get what you pay for, and free is not always free. The goal of taking a writing course is to make dramatic improvements to one’s written communication skills – I’m sorry, but the free courses won’t get you there.
For those whose budgets won’t stand for $200 per employee to improve a whole team’s written communication skills, I highly recommends the following books. (Each book has been handed to at least one of my current or past team members who needed to clean up their business writing.)
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, is perhaps the best book ever written on the proper use of commas, periods, and similar marks that seem to be missing in everyday business writing.
Business Grammar, Style and Usage by Alicia Abell, is an absolutely terrific desk reference for anyone who ever writes proposals, letters or even emails for business. TheManager has one next to his computer.
New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage by Andrea Sutcliffe, is a bit more formal than the two recommendations above, but provides a more in-depth reference for anyone who wants to improve their writing or the writing of those they supervise.
In the past, I’ve provided one of the two style guides and Eats, Shoots and Leaves to my employees, and I’ve always enjoyed noticeable improvements. Certainly, your situation would dictate whether you need one, two or all three of these great books.
Whatever you do, do something. A laissez faire attitude toward your own employees’ development is certainly not a best practice of top leaders.
Please follow this link for my favorite typos, grammatical errors and other business email faux pas I’ve collected over the years. (And, before you jump on me, faux pas is spelled the same way, whether singular or plural.) J