Business Writing – Escape from Academia

As my Business Writing class draws to a close,  I again reflect on the complaints I hear from business colleagues:  “They graduate from college and can’t write!”

Ten to twelve years ago, I would have agreed.  Today, this is simply not true.   Students today read and write more than their peers 10 years back . They may not fully appreciate that fact!  Consider a recent University of Southern California study of its student population — students spend 38% of their time on non-academic writing, that is, on social media!

True!  What I find is that students are no longer afraid to write.  That they freely admit that they are on line – reading and writing – texting – all the time.  Yes, the writing tends to be very “I” focused – given the content.  But,  social media is not the culprit for “why college graduates cannot write for business.” The real culprit? Academia!

Yes!  Last year I discovered this when I revived a dormant Business Writing offering. I introduced the standards of contemporary writing.  Students were shocked to discover that business writing did not require long, long sentences  with scads of qualifying clauses, or nicely expressed, but over-padded paragraphs. (“This is what my professors want.”)  It took time to get them to toss Academic writing standards.  It took time to get them to feel okay about shorter sentences. And forever, to get to the point, guys!

The Point?  What surprised me is that students often fell into the artificial voice trap.  You know if it’s business – sound important and keep your distance.  I was appalled to see those stuffy phrases pop up in their drafts.  (Thanking you in advance  or,  I am writing this letter per your request,  and so on…)    If students were comfortable with their social media voices, why the difficulty in creating a contemporary voice?  Why the audience, of course!

Yes! Easy for students to see their friends and family on social media.  It took them longer to recognize that the Internet and social media had changed business readers.   Those readers, like themselves, wanted plain language, quick delivery and polite respect.  Once, students could see their audience, they could create their business voices.  Their I-focus presented a bigger challenge.

Why Challenge?  After all, academia required evidence before I-statements in essays and research.   In fact, many professors disallow the I-statements altogether.   Students reasoned if contemporary writing is close to our speaking voices, then I must be okay.  After all, social media focused on what I was doing, what I thought about, what I cared about.   What was missing?  The empathy factor!

Yes!  I had to help my students imagine the readers.  Imagine what it was like IF your  had received the letter or email, and that you were:  the upset customer who needed money from your 401K because your house burnt down…the exhausted manager who had 57 emails to read…the honest supplier who had trusted an outsource company…the  frantic client who needed to deliver bad news to the boss…the eager applicant who was the second, but not final, choice.  The key question: How would you react to the letter, email or memo? 

The Point?  When students read their letters and emails as if they were the receivers, they got the message.  “I was too strong.”  “It sounds rude!”  “I’m not sure what I am supposed to do.”    Read and critiquing each other also helped them understand the necessity of the empathy factor.

So, if hiring college students as interns or employee  I recommend that you:

Check to see if they have had contemporary business writing.  Find out what they learned.  Get a sample and compare to your company standards.

Make sure that your company standards are contemporary! That is: Average sentence length 25-30 words.  No unnecessary phrases or cliches.  Active voice usage.  Polite reader-focused.

Use empathy factor to enable reader to absorb and understand meaning and tone of message.  Results in supporting relationship, getting job done, and ensuring outcomes.

About mcgntr

About Ann I was lucky and grew up in the beautiful Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts surrounded by the arts, industry, literature, and family. I had a great education-- undergraduate work at Caldwell College and my masters at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I began business life as Training Assistant. Returning east, I continued in the training profession, and ‘fell’ into Human Resources - first, Recruiting and Employment, Director of Human Resources and finally Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Training. I bowed out of the corporate world with the white collar layoffs in early ‘90s – and started a new venture McGill Enterprises: HelpQuick Human Resources Advisory & Training Services. I have enjoyed great opportunities - publishing 3 training books, mentoring HR professionals, creating a wide variety of training programs, writing scripts, and becoming an adjunct professor.
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