Friday, April 20, 2007

Business Writing: Time for Change

The business community is rarely singled out for excellence in written communication, primarily because the people who practice it day after day are not professional writers. Letters, emails, proposals, presentations, reports, etc., are still infected with convoluted, Victorian language.

While poor composition skills continue to erode the quality of the writing itself, one of the most corruptive forces today is the Federal Express syndrome, or “when you absolutely, positively have to send it before you can make it intelligible.”

The pace of work in the 21st century, the email glut, and quick-fix editorial software are derailing the need for thought. Conditioned to a life of hurry-up day in day out, more and more workers are rendering important messages in fragmented “bullet” formats or hastily plagiarizing unverified sources. Deadlines dictate content, and expedience rules the moment.

The language has always had guardians, people who labor to preserve its heritage, but in the business world there are many who have not labored at all. They are the ones who unwittingly perpetuate poor writing because they do not recognize faults. And we must live with their oversight because they have the authority to say what will be said. We can fault them, but we can not blame them. They are not writers, they are not communicators, and their priorities rarely include the effective use of language.

It will always be up to us to exorcise the bad and preserve the good. We can only hope that, with the help of educators everywhere, a new breed of professionals will occupy the offices of tomorrow, people who will have learned that the ability to communicate effectively is a required business skill, not an elective.

New and veteran communicators alike must also continue to find ways to demonstrate their value to an apathetic management. Communicators are too often perceived as workplace “baggage,” people whose contributions have little or no effect on the bottom line.

Senior managers, who usually measure success in quantitative terms, will listen only when we can show them that purposeful communication does in fact contribute to a company’s success. To do that, we must find ways to show that good writing is important, and not something to be left to professional writers and editors sitting in the corner.

“There must be a change in the attitude toward the function, power, and role of communications. This is too important to be left to professional communicators alone. It’s an all-hands job.”

James D. Robinson, former chairman, CEO
American Express


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