While “legalese” may be the punchline for jokes about bad writing, the problem isn’t confined to the legal profession. Bad business writing is widespread and costs American companies almost $400 billion per year. Let’s look at how unsatisfactory writing has affected businesses and why we should improve our writing skills. Why We Must Improve Business Writing?
Bad Writing By the Numbers
In 2016, business communications expert Josh Bernoff surveyed 547 businesspeople, including writers, editors, managers, directors, supervisors, executives, analysts, and consultants. He found that, on average, businesspeople spent 20.4 hours per week writing and 25.5 hours per week reading. These businesspeople were not pleased with what they read: 81% felt that poorly written material wasted their time. That wasted time amounts to six percent of American workforce wages.
If that survey isn’t enough to jolt you into action, consider a survey by The Economist that found that poor communication led to missed deadlines and lost sales valued at nearly $1 million. Additional reports show that poor communication costs large companies $62.4 million per year. Smaller companies feel the cost, too. Companies with fewer than 100 employees lose over $530,000 per year because of communication issues.
Unedited and Ineffective Writing
In Bernoff’s survey, businesspeople complained that what they read was ineffective because it was too long, poorly organized, unclear, jargon filled, and imprecise. Most of those deficiencies can be improved through editing, yet, writers report spending only spent 19% of their time revising their work. With that meager investment in revision, it’s no surprise the final product was ineffective.
The problem is that writers are dashing off half-thoughts and first drafts without regard for the reader. One communications study found that, in a business deal, sloppy, bad writing accounts for 40% of the transactional cost. By treating business writing as a task to be completed, rather than a message to be communicated, we invite confusion and increase costs.
Case Study: Improving Bank Examiner Reports
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Bernoff presents a case study of a group of examiners at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia who needed to improve the clarity and impact of their written reports. About 250 people in the group contributed to detailed reports that sometimes ran as long as 40 pages. With all those contributors and the sole focus on data, the reports were poorly written. The points became muddled, and decision makers couldn’t understand what problems they needed to fix.
The bank then set up a writing center and employed a writing coach to provide consistent, clear feedback. The writing coach respected the bank examiners’ subject matter expertise and focused on improving the clarity, brevity, and effectiveness of the bank documents. This encouraged the examiners to participate regularly and repeatedly. It ultimately led to a 36% improvement in overall report quality. The biggest gains were in organization and clarity. The smallest gain was in grammar.
The research and statistics we’ve shared show that poor communication is bad for businesses. Did you know that weak writing could also hinder your professional success? People with strong business communication skills get further as employees or freelancers because employers need strong communicators at work and self-employed people must communicate well to bring in business.
1. Deliver Your Intended Message
Vague, meandering, and long-winded writing increases the chances that your readers will misinterpret what you’ve said or not read it at all! When reading feels like a struggle, readers give up. They stop trying to find meaning in what you’ve written. If clients or colleagues need that information and can’t get it from any other source, consequences can be expensive. When writing, think about what your reader needs to know and make it easy for them to get what they need. Your readers will appreciate it and reward you with trust and respect.
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2. Demonstrate Professionalism
Busy professionals want to feel like the writer respects their time and intelligence. Acknowledging each other as valuable parts of the business world is a key part of business etiquette. While most people will remember to use proper etiquette in person, it’s often forgotten in the rush of writing. Sloppy errors waste readers’ time, and poor word choices can insult professionals. Meanwhile, an overly casual tone can be disrespectful. You can show professionalism in your writing using the right style, tone, accuracy, and organization.
3. Be More Productive
Writers and readers both lose productivity when the writer’s skills are weak. Untrained and unaided writers take longer to produce a well-crafted clear business document, which means less time will be available for other tasks. Readers need more time and effort to understand poorly written documents. Readers may need to ask for clarification or re-do certain tasks due to misunderstandings. When these issues are put together, companies lose many productive hours.
4. Show Leadership Skills
Clear and convincing writing is one of the best ways to show value and initiative at work. It will help you pitch a clever new idea, gather support for new project, or explain data and processes to colleagues. These are great opportunities to grow but poor writing can turn opportunities into obstacles. A long, confusing proposal or a disjointed and protracted explanation can suggest to colleagues that you’re not knowledgeable or ready for leadership.
5. Future-Proof Your Skillset
With the pandemic, we’ve changed where, how, and when we work. The good news, however, is that strong business writing skills never go out of style or lose importance. A writer who crafts a compelling story or helps readers understand complex information will be helped by technology, but never replaced. Though 26% of workers expect technology to eliminate their jobs in the next 20 years, we think human understanding combined with technology-enhanced skills is unbeatable. The more you can use technology to show off your indispensable business communication, the more future-proof your career will be.