Posted on May 31, 2017
In a recent survey, managers were asked to identify the biggest skills gap individuals face between college and the workplace. Was it coding? Data analysis? Speaking a foreign language?
All made it on the list. But what was at the top? A way with words.
That’s right. 44% of managers reported that writing was the skill most lacking among recent college graduates. How is it possible to get through three or more years of college without being able to string a half-decent sentence together?
As someone who trains both business executives and graduate students to write, I don’t believe for a second that this skills gap represents a crisis of literacy. Rather, it’s that the writing skills needed in college are completely different from the writing skills demanded in the workplace.
Take Maya, a recent college graduate. For the past three years, she’s had the luxury of a captive audience—a professor who was paid to read her stuff. Drop Maya into a non-academic environment and what happens? Suddenly she’s writing for time-pressed clients and colleagues while juggling a hundred other priorities. It’s little wonder her writing falls flat.
A large chunk of my Udemy course, Writing With Impact: Writing to Persuade, focuses on undoing habits ingrained in Maya and her peers since schooldays.
These include habits like cramming too many ideas into one sentence or trying to impress readers with long, complex words. Or worse, it might involve burying the main point of a piece beneath a long introduction. These long-winded intros are designed to warm the reader up, but actually end up leaving them cold.
Companies need to help entry-level hires like Maya rethink what constitutes good writing. If organizations can retrain employees to write well in a business environment, they’ll reap benefits far beyond the words on the page.
Why? Business writing acumen also offers transferable skills that can be applied to other aspects of an employee’s job like effective communication skills. By nurturing Maya’s ability to use words effectively, here are 5 additional skills you’ll also be teaching her to master.
The number-one skill you need to be a great business writer? It’s nothing to do with grammar, vocab or an ability to construct a phrase that’s worthy of Stephen Fry for its elegance and erudition.
No, it’s a soft skill you’ll also find in any successful leader: empathy, or the ability to relate to others.
Drafting a report for the board? Crafting a story for the company intranet? Simply typing out an email to colleagues? All require an ability to step outside your own bubble and see the world through your reader’s eyes. That’s why I encourage all my students to start by asking: Who is my reader? What do I want them to do after reading? What do they need to know in order to do it? And why should they care about doing it at all?
The second skill most lacking in recent graduates is public speaking, with 39 percent of managers identifying a gap here. It’s hardly surprising when you consider what makes a great presentation: the ability to see yourself from your audience’s perspective. Yes, it’s that empathy word again.
A great presenter, like a great writer respects their audience’s time. They don’t bombard people with long-winded verbiage, impenetrable biz babble, and chart after chart of dull data.
Instead, strong writers and engaging presenters know how to structure a message to get it across quickly, compellingly, and by crafting a story that speaks to both head and heart.
In the workplace, every piece of writing involves at least two sales. The first is convincing that busy client, colleague or other stakeholder to read on. The second is the pitch for your product, service, strategy or big idea that is the crux of the piece. Yes, if there’s one thing that distinguishes a college essay from a piece of business writing, it’s that the latter is actionable.
Yet again, it boils down to empathy. Great business writers, like great salespeople, take the time both to understand their target audience and to craft the messages that will compel that audience to act.
As anyone who writes for a living will tell you, there’s no such thing as a ‘natural’ writer. After all, it’s not like the ability to put together a 20-page strategy report for the head of HR was forged in our genes while our ancestors roamed the savanna. Writing is not innate. It’s skill that can—in fact, must—be learned.
What separates a great writer from an OK writer isn’t a talent for words at all. Rather, it’s a willingness to get something—anything—down on paper and then go back and edit, edit, edit.
In this sense, an ability to produce great writing is a proxy for two increasingly sought-after characteristics in today’s employees: grit and a growth mindset. Both amount to a general stick-to-it-ness which psychologists now recognize as a better predictor of success than natural talent.
A refusal to stall at the first hurdle and a commitment to constant, incremental improvement is what sets achievers apart in any discipline. The writing process with its continuous feedback and revision phases requires both grit and a growth mindset.
Ever stopped to wonder how much time executives around the world waste every day wading through jargon-filled biz babble in the quest for something useful? Ever thought about how much time is wasted penning said babble?
Lean thinking – the idea that you don’t waste resources on anything that doesn’t add value – is as applicable to writing as it is to the Japanese automotive industry that spawned the idea.
Imagine, for a moment, how much more your employees could get done each day if they stepped away from that turgid bit of boilerplate, that 50-slide pitch book or that buzzword-ridden email – and had the confidence to write less, but say more.
How much more of Maya’s potential could you unleash? How much more could your whole organization achieve?