Why professional writing skills matter more than ever

The ability to write coherently is a necessary, yet rare, skill in business. Photo credit: Getty Images/Ijeab

Communication in the 21st century—personal or professional—involves less conversation and more electronic sharing of information. Written communication, therefore, is often the norm. Sadly, many good businesspeople are very poor writers. Poor writing in any context leaves a lasting impression, which can be especially detrimental in today’s workplace of enduring email, texts, digital documents and social media. The six tactics below will make you a better writer.

How to Fix It

  • Be clear. Many think that using fancy words and excessive language makes them appear more persuasive, authoritative or intelligent (fun fact: this is called being a “sesquipedalian”). In reality, it has the opposite effect. Effective writing consists of words that are clear and accessible to the audience.
  • Be concise. Make your points quickly because people in business today are too busy to wade through paragraphs to reach the important points. In fact, after the opening paragraph it is more effective to use bullet points rather than paragraphs. Tests have shown that people read in short bursts rather than in long paragraphs. If you must use paragraphs, keep them short and to the point. For online reading, five to six sentences should be the maximum.
  • Be direct. Writing instructors routinely teach that the purpose of the communication be addressed as early in the first paragraph as possible. In email this is even more important because many people use the preview pane to gauge the nature and importance of an email when they may be too busy to read those they think are unimportant or not pertinent. If the subject is clearly stated in both the subject line and first paragraph, the email is more likely to be read, and more importantly, taken seriously and actioned.
  • Have someone else proof important written communication. Spelling errors are unacceptable because they make writers look uneducated and sloppy.
  • Font size and style. Research has shown that for reading on a screen, a non-serif font such as Arial or Verdana is recommended as opposed to the standard serif fonts such as Times New Roman. Font should be either 11 or 12 points, making the text large enough to read from a standard distance but not so big as to strain the eyes. And, please, do not use all capital letters in correspondence. The occasional use of a word or two in capital letters is a good way to emphasize a point, but using all caps is jarring to the eye and is considered to be “shouting” by online enthusiasts. And, it bears repeating—USE SPELL CHECK!
  • Maintain business etiquette and tact. Be considerate of both co-workers’ time and points of view. Separate emotion from intellect, and do not be condescending. If you are a manager, set an example and never allow anger to overrule reason.

Etiquette and tact are even more important in written communication. Whereas a conversation is a fleeting thing, written documentation is on the record and can be referred to in the future. Choose your words carefully and avoid using an accusatory tone. State your case clearly and concisely without emotion. Read and reread your email before you send it, to avoid sending something you will later regret.

To this end, never respond to an email out of anger or in haste. Sometimes it is best to allow for a “cooling off” period before responding. Remember that words are taken literally and often leave no room for interpretation. Avoid sarcasm or off-color language. Everything that you write leaves an impression, and the goal should be to always make that impression a positive one.

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Many people spend more time with their co-workers than with family members. There is sometimes a thin line between what is acceptable and what goes over the line. No matter how friendly you are with others, remember that first, this is a work environment and there may be people who are offended by something you say or even infer. Be careful of using offensive language or colloquialisms, and avoid topics that are overly political or religious in nature.

Conduct yourself in a professional manner in all aspects of your business dealings and treat others with the same respect that you expect yourself. That way, you will never have regrets, or worse, jeopardize your position or leadership status within the company.

Keith Kefgen and James Houran are the CEO and managing director of Aethos Consulting Group, a hospitality-focused human capital advisory, and the authors of Loneliness of Leadership -  the result of a three-year study of C-suite executives in lodging, restaurants, gaming and other hospitality sectors. They are also the founders of 20|20 Assess—a wholly owned subsidiary of Aethos Consulting Group—a proprietary suite of hospitality-specific HR and leadership software for performance management. Kefgen can be contacted at [email protected] and Houran can be reached at [email protected].