Do you know what this means: “With this being a small scale preliminary study on the methods to apply on a large scale project, I would rather participate on the latter, if your current statistical variability ultimately predicts to go in that direction”?
Believe it or not, this was a response from an engineer to a simple question: when would he be ready to register for a course? A simple question with a convoluted answer.
Consider this: how much time did the engineer spend writing this message? And, more important, how much time did the reader waste trying to understand it? How many times did the reader have to read it before she understood it? Was the reader forced to contact the writer again for clarification? (Yes, she was, which took time away from her real job). The point is that both parties wasted time on a message that should’ve been fairly straightforward and required only two messages: “When will you be ready to register?” and “I won’t be able to register.”
And while you may consider this example an anomaly, it’s not. In fact, this example exemplifies the kind of writing we see in the classes we teach, whether for engineers, pharma professionals, project managers, or financial professionals.
What are the costs of poor or ineffective writing to businesses? The consequences of poor writing have been, and continue to be, analyzed. Estimates of the costs of poor writing range but, according to most accounts, are in the billions (Moore). If we consider just the example we used in this paper and multiply that by several hundred people in this large, multinational company alone, we might question how any real business gets done at all!
How prepared is your staff to write and write well?
As our example illustrates, even well-educated professionals often lack meaningful strategies to write well. And, unfortunately, many employers assume that a college graduate has also received a good amount of writing training during college; however, recent research shows that this simply isn’t true (“Are They Really Ready to Work?”).
In fact, a survey of 120 major American corporations concludes that “in today’s workplace writing is a ‘threshold skill’ for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees.” And in the majority of these firms, most professional employees are expected to write; yet, these same employers rank graduates of two- and four-year educational institutions as “deficient” in terms of their written communication skills (“Are They Really Ready to Work?”).
As one survey respondent put it, “Recent graduates may be trained in academic writing, but we find that kind of writing too verbose and wandering” (“Are They Really Ready to Work?”).
Our own experience bears this out. Recently, while talking with a client about an upcoming class, the Senior Manager of Corporate Communications confirmed that his organization has difficulty finding graduates who, as he phrased it, “write well.”
His organization contacted a local university and asked the university to send over a few applicants for several positions they were looking to fill. The university sent four students: two with degrees in public relations and two with degrees in communications, one of whom had an emphasis in journalism.
The task, according to our client, was “straightforward. We simply asked them to take research and create a news release of 350-450 words for a general audience. All the information they needed was there.” Three students completed the exercise while one was unable to even begin. Of the three who completed the task, “not one document was even close to being usable. These students,” he said, “had no facility for the language. And because of this, they are, in my opinion, unemployable” (Anonymous, personal interview, Sept. 15, 2016).
Who’s to Blame?
Who’s to blame for the poor writing of college graduates? While certainly the advent of technology such as texting and emails encourages writers to be less formal and more spontaneous when they write, colleges themselves often fail to make writing a priority in their classes. In fact, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges reports that “Although many models of effective ways to teach writing exist, both the teaching and practice of writing are increasingly shortchanged throughout the school and college years” (“The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution”).
As a former academician, I have firsthand experience of what’s going on in universities in terms of writing instruction. I once taught at a mid-sized public university; based on the deplorable writing skills of many of my students, I thought that instituting a writing across the curriculum program would be a good idea. I talked to the “powers that be” in the schools of business and biology and both were enthusiastic about the idea, as they too agreed that their students’ writing skills were poor.
However, when I explained to them how the program would work and that they would need to assign their students more writing tasks for the program, they were resistant. “We can’t do that,” explained one professor in the school of business. “We already have our students do so much that we can’t ask them to write more. If we do that, then the English department should be expected to grade the papers.” The biology department echoed this sentiment. So, while everyone agreed that writing across the curriculum was a great idea, no one was willing to actually put in the additional time and effort to institute the program and ensure its success.
While my experience may be uncommon, anecdotally I can verify its veracity by the professionals in the classes we teach for our clients, most of whom agree that, regardless of their field while in college, writing simply wasn’t stressed.
Why Poor Writing is a Problem
Poor writing is a problem for obvious reasons: it can create confusion; cause readers to abandon the document, especially if it’s too difficult to be read and understood without a great deal of effort; result in poor customer service; hurt employee morale; and keep employees from being promoted. In fact, according to William H. DuBay, a readability expert, bad writing causes 40 percent of the cost of managing business transactions (“Working with Plain Language”).
In addition, however, poor writing simply wastes time: it wastes the time of the writer and certainly that of the reader. In addition, poorly written documents can mislead readers. As Brian Markowich, Division Head of NAVAIR (and a Hurley Write client) puts it, "The engineers and scientists at NAVAIR must be clear in their writing to ensure our decision-makers receive their information quickly and as intended. Without effective writing, effective engineering and science is wasted."
The bottom line is that, for most companies, the written document is the deliverable, as that’s the product your customers, clients, and prospects see. They don’t see the hard work your staff does in the field or the lab; they see the results of that hard work in written reports, emails, white papers, and articles. And how your staff writes those documents directly influences how your company and your staff are perceived. We’ve all done it: picked up a document, tried to read it, and walked away with an image in our heads that the writer isn’t intelligent and/or that the company for which the writer works is less than professional.
What’s the ROI of Effective Writing?
Here’s the bottom line: effective writing saves time and money, can improve customer service, results in increased sales, and helps employees do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. Joseph Kimble, chair of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Research & Writing Department, proves this in his book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. Kimble’s research focuses on organizations that have benefitted from improved writing. His book includes a variety of case studies of organizations that have saved time and money and improved business practices by making their copy easier to read.
- FedEx saved $400,000 annually when it rewrote its operations manuals. The goal was to ensure that users spent 80 percent less time looking for information; however, that 80 percent didn’t account for costs of mistakes when readers were unable to find answers.
- In 1977, the FCC rewrote regulations in plain language, resulting in the organization being able to reassign five full-time staff members whose job was to answer questions about the regulations.
- The US Army rewrote a memo to 129 officers suggesting that they perform a certain task; those who received the more readable memo were twice as likely to act on the task on the day they received the memo.
- GE rewrote its software manuals, resulting in a decrease of 125 calls per representative from customers asking questions about the software. With its revised manual, GE estimates that it saves up to $375,000 a year for each business customer.
- The US Navy rewrote its business memos to officers and saved $27 to $37 million a year in officer time because they could read the revised memos in 17 to 27 percent less time.
I encourage you to read Kimble’s book, as he has many other examples of how organizations improved their bottom line simply by reassessing and rewriting their customer-facing documents.
Fixing the Problem
If poor writing is an issue in your organization, or if your team simply needs to learn new strategies to write more cogent documents in less time, you should consider writing training. But it’s also crucial that that training be successful.
“The Great Training Robbery: Why the $60 Billion Investment in Leadership Development is Not Working” looks at why training is so often ineffective in the long term. And while the paper focuses primarily on leadership training, the ideas apply to most types of training. According to the paper’s author, Rajeev Peshawaria, part of the issue is the “70:20:10 myth.” This myth is based on the belief that 70 percent of an employee’s development comes from on-the-job training and learning by doing; 20 percent via coaching, feedback, and learning from others; while the final 10 percent from formal training.
Peshawaria argues that while 70 percent of the development does occur on the job, “[Y]ou cannot be on the job without training and education.” And, he suggests, employers must be willing to analyze the root cause of any performance problems and be open to considering potential solutions that may fall outside the 70:20:10 formula.
A paper in progress with a similar title, “The Great Training Robbery,” published by The Harvard Business School, looks at why so much training fails to result in behavioral or cultural changes in an organization. This study concurs with Peshawaria’s argument that, too often, management is unwilling to “hear the truth about the system of management they have created and to embrace the challenge of organizational change” (Beer et al. 5).
A primary requirement for success, according to the study, is support for the desired changes throughout the company culture that is driven by senior staff and executive management.
If you’re considering writing training, how can you protect your return on investment? Although the Harvard Business School study focuses on leadership training, some of these basic tenets can be applied to writing skills as well:
- Senior management must value the results of the training.
- Company culture must provide opportunities for practice and honest feedback.
- If organizational changes are necessary to support the desired outcomes, they should be made before training takes place.
- Help and coaching must be provided to teach employees how to enact new behaviors in the workplace.
- HR should not be expected to lead successful training efforts unless the broader organization is ready and willing to support necessary changes.
According to the Human Resources Council for the Nonprofit Sector, a project of the former Canadian Sector Council Program, a “positive environment for learning is always critical for success.” Thus, companies should
- Acknowledge that learning is integral to every aspect of the company.
- Include learning resources in annual budgets and company goals.
- Encourage opportunities for all staff members, not just executives.
- Treat problems and mistakes as opportunities for learning.
- Develop a specific policy on employee training, including expectations for how often employees will participate in formal training, which types of programs to consider, and how training will be funded.
- Provide time and support for both learning and practicing learned skills.
And of course, it’s essential to choose a training company and program that supports your organization’s culture and matches the value your firm places on quality writing. Canned, one-size-fits-all training can miss the mark, leaving participants struggling to apply learning to their specific needs and challenges. Look for a program that’s customized to meet your company’s needs and industry; type of writing (standard operating procedures, scientific writing); and individual challenges. Then, within an environment of support, watch your investment take root and your employees thrive.
Anonymous. Personal Interview, Sept. 15, 2016.
“Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce.” http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf.
DuBay, William. “Working with Plain Language: A Training Manual.” http://www.impact-information.com/Resources/working.pdf.
Beer, M., Finnstrom, M., Scharader, D. “The Great Training Robbery.” http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/16-121_bc0f03ce-27de-4479-a90e-9d78b8da7b67.pdf.
“The Great Training Robbery: Why the $60 Billion Investment in Leadership Development Is Not Working.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/rajeevpeshawaria/2011/11/01/the-great-training-robbery-2/#3bbf0ac21092.
“The High Cost of Poor Writing Skills.” http://ip-50-63-221-144.ip.secureserver.net/article/high-cost-poor-writing-skills.
“How Does a Lack Communication Cause Conflict in the Workplace?” http://smallbusiness.chron.com/lack-communication-cause-conflict-workplace-10470.html.
“How Much Does Bad Writing Cost your Organization?” http://www.wyliecomm.com/2011/09/writing-roi/.
HRCouncil CA. “Getting Your Organization Ready for Employee Training & Development.” http://hrcouncil.ca/hr-toolkit/learning-ready.cfm.
Markowich, Brian. NAVAIR. Personal email. Aug. 24, 2016.
Moore, Kaleigh. “Poor Writing Skills are Costing Businesses Billions.” http://www.inc.com/kaleigh-moore/study-poor-writing-skills-are-costing-businesses-billions.html.
The National Commission on Writing. “Writing: A Ticket to Work…or a Ticket Out. A Survey of Business Leaders.” http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf.
“Poor Writing Leads to Lost Business and Career Paralysis.” http://www.nsaglac.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/LABJ-Exec-Education_1303.pdf.
“What are the Causes of Poor Communication in the Workplace?” http://smallbusiness.chron.com/causes-poor-workplace-communication-20827.html.
“Writing Skills: More Important than Ever on the Job.” https://www.livecareer.com/quintessential/writing-skills-on-job.
The National Writing Project. “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution.” 2003. http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2523.