Grammar training: Mind your business language

Poor grammar among employees could prove costly to those businesses that don’t bother about it. Well, maybe they should.

While the majority of learning and development (L&D) departments may view literacy as an occasional issue, recent research suggests the problem of sub-standard grammar is probably far more widespread than most organisations realise.

In June 2008, software developer Basic Writing Skills released the results of an online survey that it conducted to coincide with the launch of its Better Writing: Better Business (BWBB) programme – a web-based tool designed to teach the basics of grammar and punctuation. The research found that two-thirds of respondents would fail a basic literacy test comprising 10 questions.

On average, male respondents scored 5.5 out of 10, while female participants achieved an average seven out of 10 in the questionnaire, which was completed by 1,400 people over a two-month period.

Course author Heather Ker, who rates eight out of 10 as a ‘below average’ score, says the results show that some of the people who took part in the study did not know some of the basic rules for written English, a deficiency that can be easily fixed.

She explains that BWBB can be used as a reference tool, a self-paced learning intervention – if taken as a five-minute starter each day, users should complete the course in 30 days – or a group workshop.

She adds that BWBB can also help L&D practitioners diagnose specific grammar issues via a 25-question assessment. The e-course is priced per user licence, ranging from £19.99 for a single annual permit to £1,699 for companies with more than 2,001 employees.

Bottom line

While sub-standard writing may be an individual issue, there’s no doubt that it does affect the bottom line, according to Alison Cowper, learning consultant at training firm Hemsley Fraser. “Poor grammar will cost you business,” she says. “For instance, if a proposal is not worded well, then it doesn’t give a professional impression. People will make a decision based on a document – and if it’s unpolished, it just doesn’t have the same credibility.”

According to Ker, the common misapprehension that ‘if we can speak it, we can write it’ is simply a naïve assumption.

“People don’t read as much these days, and so unless people have been extremely lucky in their choice of school or teacher, they are very likely to have missed out on the technicalities of grammar and punctuation,” she says. “This is not endemic throughout the world though, so we have to tackle it – because we don’t want to look foolish, stupid and uneducated when we’re talking to business partners.”

Cowper claims there is a big demand for grammar and punctuation tuition, as well as the general use of English, from companies looking to up-skill their workforce – in terms of writing reports, e-mails and letters – as well as meeting the needs of an increasingly multi-cultural workforce.

Productivity

In an environment where time is money, good grammar and punctuation will also increase productivity, with confident business writers getting the job done quicker and making fewer mistakes, says Barry Rockhill, managing director of GBC Learning.

The Guildford and London-based training company offers a one-day training course entitled Better Business Writing, which looks at grammar and spelling, as well as tone and expression. Rockhill says most of the training is delivered to people in support roles. The open one-day course costs £295, with a half-day session available for £195.

When it comes to raising the issue, L&D should adopt a positive approach, presenting any grammar training as an opportunity to hone skills for the business environment, rather than a problem-fix, advises Cowper.

“By itself, grammar will just be a big turn-off, but when it is put forward as part of a report or business writing course that will bring results, it’s much more respectable. You can wrap it up and call it a proof-reading course [an intervention that would include grammar and punctuation] and there will be a big demand for it.”

Hemsley Fraser offers Effective Business English – a one-day open course priced at £529 per person. More cost-effective tailored in-house sessions, which can comprise up to 12 people, are also available.

Case study: BT

As an approved BT trainer, Hemsley Fraser was asked to run the one-day Effective Business English course for the telecoms company in April and May.

Manager Paul Fawcett explains that issues with inconsistencies and numerous grammatical errors on security-related reports taken via telephone meant that all 25 of the staff working in the incident management integrity department had a training requirement.

Rather than being a management-led initiative, however, Fawcett says the employees themselves made the first move – as they were aware of these discrepancies and felt that better guidance would help streamline the process. They signed up for the Hemsley Fraser Effective Business English course as an in-house intervention that required no prior assessment.

While the course was originally booked for call-takers, two managers also expressed an interest in attending. Another four managers then attended the subsequent May course. According to Fawcett, everyone in the team found the training very useful, because it covered everything from the basics of grammar and punctuation, to in-depth business writing and drafting letters and e-mails.

Fawcett claims that everyone took something away from the course, which has led to a massive improvement in the standard of the department’s work.

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