The title of Lynne Truss’ runaway bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham Books, 2003) illustrates the impact of a wayward comma:
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots into the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
Although Truss’ anecdote is humorous, poor writing by employees is no laughing matter, and in fact can cost your company millions—or billions—of dollars in rework and misunderstanding. A 2008 white paper by International Data Corporation (IDC) showed that businesses in the United States and the United Kingdom were losing an estimated $37 billion as a result of “employee misunderstanding.” The term is defined as “actions or errors of omission by employees who have misunderstood or misinterpreted (or were misinformed about) company policies, business processes, job function or a combination of the three.” The authors wrote,
Employee misunderstanding is a very different proposition to a deliberate disregard for the rules or a plain mistake, whereby an employee simply does something that they didn’t mean to (like forgetting to back up computer storage or putting a decimal point in the wrong place)…. The financial cost of employee misunderstanding is immense…. Of the industries we researched, banks suffer the greatest losses and transportation the least. Loss of business due to unplanned downtime was the largest area of loss attributed to employee misunderstanding.
What causes employee misunderstanding? Poor, unclear, or no communication, leaving employees without the knowledge they need to do their jobs correctly.
There is more evidence. An SIS International Research study prepared for Siemens Enterprise Communications in 2009 explored and quantified communication difficulties experienced by small to medium-sized businesses, up to 400 employees. The researchers concluded that waiting for information, unwanted communications, inefficient coordination, barriers to collaboration, and customer complaints caused productivity losses estimated to be $26,041 per knowledge worker per year.
Unfortunately, even college graduates are not getting the preparation they need to communicate effectively in writing. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” after two years of college; and that 36 percent “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” after four years!
In an article about the book, Scott Jaschik of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote,
[The authors] review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.
What are employers to do?
Clearly, there is a case for businesses hiring for potential and training for skill in writing. But do you know what you are getting? Does your company administer a writing test to job applicants? You should, says Kyle Wiens, chief executive officer (CEO) of iFixit, the world’s largest collection of online repair manuals. In a July blog post entitled, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why,” Wiens wrote,
Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.
Admittedly, he says, he and his colleagues “write for a living.”
But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.*
Writing skills are important now more than ever in this age of digital communication, says consultant David Silverman, contributing editor to the Guide to Better Business Writing, 2nd Edition (Harvard Business Press, 2011). “With text messages and emails, most business communication nowadays is written,” he says. “Unfortunately, our reliance on written communication, which is increasing, is inversely proportional to our abilities and our willingness to learn.” Yet written communication, he emphasizes, makes up the private and public faces of your company.
Silverman helps employees in government agencies and corporations of all sizes develop better written communication skills. The worst mistake we all make? Writing too much. “Being succinct requires time and effort, whereas including everything under the sun seems safer,” he says.
Many companies see good writing skills as an indicator of leadership potential, Silverman says. So what should knowledge workers be able to do?
“Tell a story that people will remember,” Silverman says. “Tell a story with pictures, and remove extraneous information.” In other words, think about what will be in your reader’s mind as you write. Is it cluttered, or is the path to the crucial information straight and clear?
Naturally, the rules for good writing depend on your goal, Silverman notes. Are you striving to instruct, or just to entertain? “The only viable reason to send a business email is to request action,” he says. To write emails that people will read—and act upon—use clear subject lines and include your call to action at the top. “Your messages must answer the reader’s questions, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and ‘How will I know I’ve done it?’” Silverman emphasizes.
We all make mistakes. So for critically important email messages and other documents, Silverman recommends these three steps:
Have someone else read your work.
Wait an hour and read it again before pressing Send.
As you prepare your training budgets for 2013, consider devoting some of your expenditures to developing your employees’ writing skills. After all, even if you only cut that lost productivity of $26,000-plus in half, that is a pretty significant return on investment (ROI).
*Although the word “grammar” may seem yawn-inducing to some, it is a hot topic: Wiens’ post has generated more than 3,200 comments since it was published.