Message in a baffle

Poorly written and constructed business letters can cost organisations dearly. Training is clearly the answer, and there are several options available to show errant staff that plain English is best.

The education system is letting school-leavers down by failing to teach them writing skills, says the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). But, as all employers know, poor writing is not confined to school-leavers: graduates write e-mails in phone text talk technical specialists pepper their reports with jargon and buzzwords and senior managers’ PowerPoint presentations often feature grammatical and spelling mistakes.

Sir Digby Jones, the CBI’s director general, says one of its recent surveys shows 5.6 million adults don’t have the literacy abilities expected of 14-year-olds, which leaves corporate trainers to pick up the pieces.

Development trainer Melissa Hawker calls herself a passionate wordsmith, and believes the speed and immediacy of modern communication techniques has highlighted this gap in people’s education.

“We get incomprehensible reports and waffly letters,” she says. “People half remember outdated rules of grammar. Apostrophes are strewn around like confetti. And the result is irritation, confusion, and incomprehension.”

Hawker’s To The Point business writing workshops are tailored for each client. Their objectives are to make people stop and think about what they are writing and why, who their audience is, and what they want to say.

Old habits

“It is often hard to shake people out of their complacency,” she says. “Managers with more than 10 years experience of writing letters and reports often question why they need to attend a writing workshop – but our experience tells us that they are often the ones who need it the most.”

Rob Ashton, founding director of Brighton-based business writing consultancy Emphasis, has noticed a sharp increase in demand for training for new graduate recruits. “Companies are beginning to understand that if they can catch their employees at entry level, they stand a better chance of getting rid of bad habits early on,” he explains.

Emphasis runs open and bespoke in-house training programmes, covering everything from punctuation and grammar to high-level business writing.

One of the problems with both writing and reading business communications is that we are all so busy. Writing dynamics – writing clearly, persuasively and fast – is the theme of an Indigo Business two-day workshop. The aim is to help learners completely review their writing process to reach today’s reader.

Clear objectives

Workshops cost at least £200 to £400 per delegate per day, so make sure you identify your objectives first. Do you want a generic plain English course, or a day dedicated to report writing? Do you need a customer service workshop on e-mail and phone contact, or one-to-one coaching for senior professionals? Talk to the trainers first so they can design a solution.

Will you deliver courses in-house, or should people study online? Corporate trainers confident enough of their own writing skills can run internal courses using prepared training materials.

Fenman’s chunky 650-page Business Writing Toolkit plus CD-Rom costs £249 and covers key tools to incorporate in any communication skills programme. Fenman says: “It deals with all the things people need to think about – external and internal documents, letters, press releases, reports, evaluation, presentations and handouts, memos, e-mails and faxes.”

Buckingham Tutors’ Effective Writing for Business management training package enables trainers to teach international business English writing. Clarity, simplicity and brevity are the key techniques for getting the written message across effectively, says the company. Its product includes examples, exercises, checklists, guidelines and a self-evaluation questionnaire. The paper-based manual is £295, while a pdf format on CD-Rom, plus two audio CDs, costs £245.

CD-Roms are ideal for desktop learning and BDP Skill Boosters – ranked 13th in the 2006 Sunday Times 100 Fastest-Growing Technology Companies – has developed The Write Way, a CD-Rom accredited by the Plain Language Commission.

It covers: common mistakes clarifying the purpose and grabbing the reader’s attention structure and layout style and tone grammar and punctuation and different types of communications. There’s a useful section on how people read documents, and learners can test themselves with a quiz. Networkable/intranet licences range from £1 to £6.50 per user, depending on numbers.

Plenty of options then – but don’t wait too long to join in. As employers skill their people up to write well, being left behind could write off your reputation.

Case Study: Derby Council

Derby City Council is an acknowledged leader in how to write to diverse audiences. “Our training is aimed at staff who write reports, letters and any public-facing documents,” says public relations manager Theresa Knight.

The council’s internal trainer coaches delegates to question whether their audience will understand what they write. They are then shown how to strip the language back to basics.

“We show them how to use plain English, write in simple sentences without jargon or acronyms, and give clear, explanations and instructions,” says Knight. “Some of our reports are impenetrable to some audiences, so we show people how to write a summary. We provide a style guide for web content. And we’re currently designing some training on writing e-mails.”

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