Podcast 57 Transcript: Business Writing

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ian Portsmouth: Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the top issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses. I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine and we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO Bank of Montreal.

Writing has always been a key mode of business communication but email has made the written world more prominent and important than it’s been since at least the dawn of the telephone. But at the same time, we are producing and receiving more written communication, writing skills are in decline, the results are reduced productivity and lost opportunities for business which no one can afford in a recession. Sandra Folk would like to reverse this trend. She is currently program coordinator and professor of Education at the University of Toronto and the Principal of Sandra Folk Educational Consultant which designs programs to improve employee’s communication skills. Sandra Folk joins me on the line from her office in Toronto. Sandra, welcome to the Business Coach Podcast.

Sandra Folk: Good afternoon.

Ian Portsmouth: So, just how bad is it out there, how bad is written communication in business these days?

Sandra Folk: Well, if we look at the state of written communication these days, I would say it’s not in very good shape. Here are some data to back it up. Statistics Canada report on literacy shows that anywhere from 18 to 30% of Canadian youth do not attain a minimum level of literacy. And this is based on an international study of literacy and skill survey in 2005. Also, ABC Literacy Canada which is a private sector organization, championing literacy in Canada since that, although Canadians as a group are more formerly educated and literate than ever before, we know that 22% of Canadians have serious difficulties with any type of printed material and a further 26% struggle with all of the most simple reading and writing tasks. Now, if we look at this very specifically in writing, we know that 120 of the top companies in the U.S. were interviewed and surveyed by the National Commissioner Writing and they found that one out of every three employees were not adequate writers. Now these 120 corporations represent 8 million people. That’s a lot of people. And also we know that 2/3 of salary workers in large companies have jobs that require writing. So if we were to actually look at the actual figures, we say that writing is not in a very good state right now in business.

Ian Portsmouth: Can you give us a quick example of bad business communication and contrast it with what you would consider to be a good business communication, just so that we can see the difference? I know that a lot of people out there think that they could write the Great Canadian novel and they probably couldn’t.

Sandra Folk: Well, email is probably the foremost way of communicating in business communication today. And I would say that in looking at email communication that I receive and probably you receive, they are very poorly written. Often, they are wordy, they are imprecise, there is a lot of jargon, there are short forms that people don’t really understand. So, in email, that’s one of the biggest problems. In letter writing, I would say that some of the biggest problems are related to people not writing concisely. In the work that I do for clients, I have to do a need assessment and I look what people have written and often the biggest problem is that they don’t write concisely. So what I mean by not writing concisely is they use short sentences, they are wordy, they go on for too long and they use a lot of industry jargon and short forms. So that’s not really helpful for someone receiving a letter from a person in business. What we want to see is something that is more well-written and a well-written letter is concise, short sentences, written in the active voice, because the active voice is really important to use in your writing with precise language, usually, about three to four paragraphs long, about one page, nothing more than that. And if we look at this also, one of the biggest problems why people write poorly, is that in school, we don’t learn to write a good business letter, okay. I was talking to one of the people who just finished one of the writing programs that I do for eight companies that I have done work for and she said to me, you know, I am an English Major and I was taught that I should be wordy and expand my ideas. However, she realizes now that this type of writing does not work for business and where you need to focus on shorter sentences, the active voice, precise and using action into verb to get your point across. So, that’s what we are looking for in a good piece of writing, whether it is a letter or a report or into a proposal or an email. That’s what a good piece of communication would look like.

Ian Portsmouth: Now, most of the written business communication that I receive is in the form of email and I deal with a lot of entrepreneurs and Chief Executives and I find that many of them have trouble getting their point across. And I do receive emails where I scratch my head and I really don’t know what the person is telling me or asking me to do. Do you find that this problem goes all the way from the front line all the way up to the corner office?

Sandra Folk: I would say that people at all levels of business are guilty of these crimes, poor writing. And why I say this is because in the work that I do, I have designed programs to improve senior executives writing, middle manager’s writing, front line people, sales associates. So yes, I would say there are problems that people have with writing at every level. And it’s not that they’re not educated, they are educated, they are college educated many of them, like master’s degree in writing. And we also can look at what’s written about lawyers and judges that are equally as guilty of these crimes of poor writing just as John Raskin, the very Honorable Beverly McLaughlin, who are just a few of the legal luminaries who write about lawyers need to write clearly and to write for the lay people. They also say that judges and lawyers need to write so that people understand what they are saying and lawyers need to write so that a non lawyer perfectly can read and understand message. So yes, I would totally agree with you, it’s everywhere, it’s not [indiscernible], it’s not just in, you know, with people who may be professor, not educated.

Ian Portsmouth: Now short of sending all of us back to school, how can this problem be remedied?

Sandra Folk: Well, can it be remedied? We know that if we take a look at how much money that is spent by business today, on trying to improve people’s writing, we know that the leading U.S. companies try to deal with the problem about people’s poor writing and they spend more than $1.3 billion annually to improve people’s remedial writing. So it’s really important for organizations, large or small, to be able to provide professional development and when you do provide professional development, people feel that the organization cares about them and training motivates and have a profitable impact on retention. So, we can provide the professional development. So what does that professional development mean? It depends on what we do, okay, with that professional development. We need to provide professional development that provides preface over time. One shot workshops are good and lunch time seminars are good but they have a limited impact. As we do at our company, the language lab, we design programs that require a two to three month commitment to improve people’s writing. And what we do is we design programs that are context-based that uses industry specific language and we incorporate company’s standards to fit the particular needs of an organization. So, that could work for large business or small business. And then we offer it online. So that’s really important because people don’t have a lot of time to attend, you know, an afternoon workshop because they come and they’re really stressed about, you know, they don’t have time and in the online environment, you can do any assignment anywhere, anytime, whenever you want. Plus we provide one-to-one feedback. So I would say that if you can provide professional development for your employees and you can do it so that they have the opportunity to do practice over time, then you are going to be successful in making a difference.

Ian Portsmouth: So definitely, practice makes perfect. In the 90 seconds we have left Sandra, let’s talk a little bit about email since it has become the dominant form of written communication. Can you identify some best practices and worst mistakes in email communications quickly?

Sandra Folk: Yes, best practices for email writing, be sure that when you put in a subject line, it’s appropriate. That’s really really important because then it tells your reader what the email is about. Also, be sure you place your key points at the beginning of your email message. Use proper spacing and avoid, most of all, avoid capitalizing in an email, anywhere in an email because if you do, it’s like screaming at the person receiving your letter. It’s really important to use an appropriate tone in your email, especially if you are sending an email with sensitive information to someone, I think that’s really really important. Also, if you’re going to send an email to a number of people, make sure that you are aware of whether you want to cc or bcc to the recipient. So those are some good practices. Some really bad practices in the email that you have seen and I have seen, if people write you an email and you’re trying to figure out what it is that they are trying to say because they’ve used industry jargon, they used these short forms and you’re trying to figure out what it is or what we call language ہ”maché€. So the writing is incomprehensible, there are awkward expressions and you are trying to figure it out because the grammar in the sentence structure is poorly written. So, I would say that those are probably some of the good things that you need to remember and some of the offenses that we need to avoid when writing email messages.

Ian Portsmouth: Those are great tips Sandra. Thanks for joining the Business Coach Podcast.

Sandra Folk: Thank you very much.

Ian Portsmouth: Sandra Folk is program coordinator and professor of Education at the University of Toronto and the principle of Sandra Folk Educational Consultant.

That’s’ it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast. Be sure to check out other episodes which you can download from BMO.com, profitguide.com and iTunes. If you have any comments or suggestions about the podcast, then please send them directly to me at ian.portsmouth@profit.rogers.com.

Until next time, I am Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine, wishing you continued success.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com