Trade secrets: Mind your language

Exam season may almost be at a close, but the press coverage that accompanies this summer’s GCSE and A-level results is bound to centre on how school leavers lack basic writing skills and grammar.

Research from the CBI earlier this year indicated that almost half of employers (42%) are unhappy with the basic skills of those applying for jobs. Even graduates are writing illiterate memos and are in need of constant supervision, employers report.

The workplace writing crisis doesn’t stop there. Gone are the days of the traditional secretary who would type up business correspondence for most staff. Instead, e-mail constitutes at least 70% of business writing today, both internally and externally, meaning the potential for making mistakes is far greater than it used to be.

With its reputation for using jargon or acronyms, HR needs to ‘write right’ as much as any department within the business.

Getting it wrong

“Whats wrong with errers, if I do my job well?”, you may ask. Well, that’s just it. Others may not agree that you do your job well if you make mistakes like these. Customers and bosses tend to see errors as direct evidence of sloppy business performance.

Mistakes are not just about poor spelling, grammar and punctuation. They can arise from staff not understanding how to write positive messages that cut out jargon and ambiguity, or writing rudely or negatively. The result can have a damaging impact, losing custom and goodwill.

Writing for your brand

Consider what you need your company communications to look and feel like.

Text messaging does not necessarily present the corporate image your company wants to project. Think about the words that capture your brand. How do you then ensure that you reinforce them in all your corporate writing, such as internal communications memos, or details of training or reward schemes?

Business writing has to work for you when you are not there to explain it. If it is not saying what you think it is saying, you have a problem.

Crossing the borders

If your company operates globally, it is crucial that your counterparts in other countries understand you as well as your home audience. How many times have you seen ‘effect’ used wrongly for ‘affect’, or ‘complimentary’ for ‘complementary’? They are just two small examples of sloppy business communication.

And as for the correct use of apostrophes, well, some businesses forget them altogether. So just imagine the hurdles involved when you have to take other business cultures’ expectations into account as well.

Luckily, English is the international business language, but its grammatical structure can make it confusing for our foreign partners whose first language is not English.

Since the very nature of business communication should be to seal business, why create unnecessary problems by using complicated grammatical forms? For example, an expression such as ‘heralding a new era’ is a lot more difficult to understand than the expression ‘introducing a new age’.

In speech, too, you will often have to choose more simple references and avoid colloquialisms. Do not ask your foreign colleagues to give figures ‘off the top of their heads’, or tell them that the meeting seems to be ‘dragging on ’til the cows come home’. They won’t know what you are talking about.

Getting it right

If poor writing is endemic in the workplace and causes confusion, misunderstandings, or missed opportunities, then it is easy to see how great writing will set you apart.

Clear and confident writing underpins your professionalism, and enables other departments or external partners to identify the right messages and respond in the way you want.

Ditch the jargon

HR has a reputation for using 20 words where four would do. Below is a selection of readersÕ most despised pieces of HR management jargon.



  • Paradigm shifts
  • Let’s touch base offline
  • Synergy
  • Human capital management
  • Think outside the box
  • Taking a step back

What’s your conversational style?

In verbal communication, it is not simple to edit what we need to say. Nick Gendler, founder of career coaching consultancy Workjoy, has identified four types of conversations that occur every day, both inside and outside the workplace. The challenge, he says, is in finding the appropriate conversation for the intended audience.

Dictation – this conversation takes place for the sake of the speaker. Be aware that this kind of conversation can easily become a monologue, and tends to be used by those in authority or between individuals where there is a disparity in power.

Friendship – this conversation is characterised by a mixture of sympathy and small talk, but tends to steer clear of difficult matters. In business, small talk can help in building rapport, but the conversation may need to move up to tackle more serious issues.

Coaching – the dynamic of the coaching conversation is between an adviser or mentor (usually in a professional capacity) and their client or subject. It says: ÒLet me know what you need and IÕll help you find the solution.Ó

Thoughtful conversation – here the power is shared between professional and client. While friendly, this conversation has a purpose, and will enter the risky territory that friends might avoid.

Our experts

Fiona Talbot of WordPower Skills is a consultant trainer and troubleshooter specialising in business writing skills. She is a certified practitioner on Business Link’s National Consultants Register.

Nick Gendler is founder of career coaching consultancy Workjoy. The company was established in February 2002 to help people find meaning in their careers. A graduate in Social Science, Gendler went on to study for an MBA at Warwick Business School. After running a mail order business, Gendler became a recruitment consultant, which then developed into career consulting.

How to produce powerful business writing

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