You write at work every single day, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to get the best from your words, says Teresa Ewington.
Are you a writer? Chances are, you’ve answered ‘no’. But if I asked you if you write emails, training material, proposals, presentations, reports, policies, manuals or anything similar – you’ll say yes. In fact, you’ll probably say that you spend a fair bit of time every day doing these things. So in my mind, that makes you a professional writer. Because someone pays you to write.
The problem is, just because we’re paid to write doesn’t mean we necessarily feel confident doing it. And what’s more, it’s probably been a very long time since we had any kind of writing training at all. Perhaps we think we don’t need it. Perhaps we’re afraid to ask. Or perhaps we think writing is someone else’s job: the comms team; marketers or social media teams.
As L&D professionals, we spend a lot of time making sure the people who work for our firm have the skills they need to do their job. We might offer leadership development to our managers, help teams get to grips with new software or coach our executives. But there’s very little on putting words down on paper. The only time I’ve seen communication skills available is when the session’s about talking and presenting, not about writing. For some reason we just assume everyone gets it. And anyway, aren’t there bigger things to spend the training budget on?
Words, words, everywhere
If you look around the workplace though, you’ll spot a few signs that suggest we do need to give people a hand with their words. Those never-ending internal emails. Pages and pages of HR policies that sit on the intranet. Convoluted reports that have an impressive thud factor, but make for a cumbersome read. You know, the ones you need a glass of wine or a slice of cake to get through?
You don’t have to look very far to find stories of how somebody’s words got their company into a whole lot of trouble. And that trouble can hit a firm’s reputation as well as the bottom line. It can drop share prices in an instant, prick the ears of a regulator or go viral, leaving embarrassed directors in its wake. It’s a mistake to see writing training as ‘soft skills’ or a ‘nice to have’. I think it’s essential.
Who taught you to write?
Every single day, people we work with produce hundreds of words. But the chances are, the last bit of advice they had on writing came from a school teacher or university professor. Are your grads still writing dissertations even though uni is far behind them? That’s the communications equivalent of reading a manual for a fax machine to help make sense of TweetDeck.
We need to take people back to basics. Not to memories of their primary school English classes – and the fearful stare of Mrs Brown and her prohibition of the word ‘nice’ or starting a sentence with the word ‘and’ – but to what they already know, instinctively, as readers.
Trust your instincts
I think your gut feeling’s often the best litmus test as to whether or not a piece of writing’s doing the job it should do. So if we give people permission to trust themselves, then they’ll be much more likely to spot what’s working and what’s not, and why. Once they know why, then they can see where they trip up in their own pieces of writing.
We should push people outside their comfort zone, getting them to test out techniques that professional journalists, novelists and writers hide up their sleeves. I’ve seen accountants write poems, regulators channel their inner Jeremy Clarkson and consultants sum up months of work in a tweet. And what’s most surprising? How much of it they remember – and how they can apply these tricks to their own writing.
Doing something completely different can give them the confidence to view their own words in a different light; and know what they need to do to improve them. Think of the things that people at your organisation do every single day of the week. If writing’s one of them, then isn’t it time you put writing on your L&D curriculum?
Teresa Ewington is head of training at The Writer