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Why Business Cant Writeand What to Do About It

October 13, 2008
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Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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When tensions mount on the job, the math and science whizzes at Moretrench American Corp., a New Jersey-based construction company, require another tool entirely: mastery of the written word.

Consider Exhibit A: a change order. In that document, an engineer must detail in writing why the job specifics have changed, a scenario that frequently requires a client to fork over more cash, says Jack Paluszek, organizational development coordinator at the company, which employs about 600 people nationwide. Writing clearly and persuasively matters to the bottom line, he notes. "Our people are very good technically on the engineering end of things, but probably could use help writing better," Paluszek says.

So Paluszek persuaded the company’s chief executive to invest in a series of writing workshops that began this year. To date, about three dozen engineers and administrative assistants have completed at least six hours of writing training, with additional workshops planned for this fall.

In today’s business environment, writing savvy helps to drive deals and cement relationships, perhaps more than ever before, corporate training and human resources leaders say. E-mails and text messages are fired off at a rapid pace, containing everything from brief exchanges to detailed reports and contracts. Multinational corporations rely upon written communication to bridge continents, time zones and cultural differences.

But U.S. employees appear to be falling short when it comes to writing skills. In 2006, 81 percent of corporate leaders rated the writing of high school graduates as deficient and nearly 28 percent gave similarly low marks to four-year college graduates, according to survey data compiled by a consortium that included the Conference Board and the Society for Human Resource Management.

As writing skills slide, Americans are squandering an inherent competitive advantage, says Linda Barrington, a co-author of the 2006 report and research director at the Conference Board. "We have the asset of our language being the language of [international] business," she says. "If we don’t write it well, we are wasting a huge asset that we have in the global economy."

Playing catch-up isn’t cheap. In a2004 report, the College Board’s National Commission on Writing estimated that U.S. businesses pay as much as $3.1 billion annually in writing-related training. At the Conference Board, officials are currently working with several groups, including the American Society for Training & Development, to tally results from a survey they conducted this spring designed to delve further into the costs of writing and other types of skills-related training.

Scouting out causes
Some corporate leaders and writing coaches blame the education system, at least in part, for the shortcomings. They say that writing needs to be emphasized more before students reach the workforce. They also question whether today’s reliance on e-mail and text messaging breeds a sense of informality that’s far removed from those days when every written exchange required paper and at least one rough draft.

In that context, Gen Y employees can become a lightning rod, given their propensity for abbreviations and other text message-style shorthand. But Jack Appleman, the writing coach who is working with Moretrench American employees, is less apt to attribute the problem to a generational slide. The sheer volume of written communication challenges employees of all ages, says Appleman, author of 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing.

"Pretty much everyone is required to generate documents via e-mail now," he says. "People need to justify their own ideas via e-mail more often than they ever had to before."

Confusing or unclear writing can be costly in a variety of ways, say Appleman and other writing coaches. The fallout can include interpersonal misunderstandings, lost work time, jeopardized business deals—or all of the above. "Bad writing wastes time, and time is money," Appleman says. "It hurts productivity. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that."

At the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Steve Gluckman decided to hire an outside writing coach in late 2007, after he kept fielding complaints from partners about the writing abilities of the younger attorneys. Gluckman is the firm’s senior director of professional and organizational development.

The bulk of the criticism involved wordiness, Gluckman says. Partners, he says, "spend a lot of their time editing the product they are getting from the associates that are working with them. To ease frustrations and stem the loss of revenue, Gluckman launched a series of sessions that by early fall had already reached 130 employees, including staff lawyers, summer legal associates and other professionals. The multi-city law firm employs nearly 1,000 people nationwide.

At legal conferences, Gluckman hears similar griping from colleagues. "We are all seeing the same problem. And it doesn’t matter where [the attorneys] go to school. These are really sharp people, really bright. But they have some real issues with writing."

Elevating communication
Sloppy or unclear writing can corrode today’s business interactions, particularly given that in-person meetings and even telephone calls are less common, says J.D. Schramm, director of the CAT (Critical Analytical Thinking) Writing Program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. "Because we are writing so much more, it becomes an extension and a representation of us."

In 2007, Schramm launched a program for first-year MBA students at Stanford that has at its heart an intensive writing curriculum, with each student assigned his or her own coach. The two issues Schramm primarily notices: writing that is "too casual" in style or not "audience-focused."

Business students don’t use acronyms and emoticons in their documents, but informality can still shade their writing tone or structure, he says. Plus, they don’t necessarily write with their target audience in mind, whether that’s a client, an employee or a potential business partner, he says.

Other writing coaches tick off additional pitfalls, including passive voice, circular writing or taking too long to make a central point. "The last thing you want to do is for writing to be your focus—you want your message to be your focus," says Kiko Korn, the Los Angeles-based legal writing coach hired by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

In his training, Appleman emphasizes two similar goals: clarity and brevity. At multinational companies, documents may be read by employees for whom English is not their first language, leaving more room for misunderstandings, he says. Even in the U.S., employees are overworked and impatient.

In short, writers should make their central points quickly and directly, Appleman says. They shouldn’t take several sentences to express a thought that could be conveyed in one. E-mail subject lines should also be used effectively, so the recipient knows not only what the message contains, but ideally, what type of action is required, he says.

Appleman was hired this year by the U.S. subsidiary of LG Electronics after the subsidiary’s human resources director decided that some training would help sharpen his staff’s writing. Appleman held a half-day workshop for about a dozen human resources employees, followed by one-on-one sessions, says Claudia Sandonato, the company’s manager of workplace learning and organizational development.

The staffers didn’t have significant writing problems, but the director wanted their e-mails to be shorter and written more crisply, Sandonato says. "People get so many e-mails," she says. "He wants to make sure that anything that is sent out is brief and to the point and just has the necessary information."

Weighing dollars
In an effort to remedy writing deficiencies, more than 40 percent of companies offer or require training for salaried employees, according to the National Commission on Writing’s 2004 survey. The commission, which had pegged the annual cost of training at $3.1 billion, based its findings on responses from 64 human resources directors affiliated with the Business Roundtable.

In its own 2006 report—"Are They Really Ready to Work?"—the Conference Board and other involved groups tried to gather their own snapshot of the cost of skills-related training, including for writing. But just 18.8 percent of the 431 employers surveyed provided any dollar figures. The Conference Board’s latest survey, conducted with ASTD and other groups, will attempt to better isolate training costs, including remedial, job-specific and other types, Barrington says.

Unfortunately, some corporate leaders are reluctant to pay for writing-related training because the return on investment is difficult to quantify in comparison with sales and other types of staff development, she says. But, she stresses: "It’s an investment in future productivity and future growth. And it’s not a cost you always want to be shaving."

At Moretrench American, Paluszek agrees that writing results are "difficult to measure directly." But he’s not giving up.

Once Appleman finishes his third writing workshop, Paluszek plans to survey engineering managers to solicit feedback: Are change orders and other documents being written more effectively? Gluckman also expects to conduct a survey, querying the partners about the firm’s most pressing training needs. If interest in writing training has declined, that’s a promising sign, he says.

For those still less than convinced, Schramm, of Stanford’s MBA writing program, offers up a story: An entrepreneur once spoke to one of Schramm’s classes about a contractual wording disagreement that placed $15 million at stake. The contractual detail, which involved when stock options would be issued, boiled down to two clauses and differing interpretations of the meaning of "subsequent" versus "consequently."

The entrepreneur lost the argument and the cash. Talk may be cheap, but fuzzy business writing can be incredibly expensive.

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