I was recently asked to develop a business writing workshop for an audience of millennials. Since they were recent college graduates who were already in in the work force, the assumption was that this would just be a refresher course of sorts.
Point in fact, these attendees were sent to the workshop by their managers to learn how to write more concisely.
The idea of writing concisely, to me, seemed like such a contradiction in this day and age. After all, isn’t being able to write a message in 140 characters or less the pinnacle of being concise?
When asked about their expectations for the workshop and, more importantly, what their takeaways might be, the answers surprisingly were more along the lines of, “I don’t know why I am here, I’m already a strong writer” or, “I don’t have an issues with writing, my boss has the issue.”
I wondered what these claims were based on. It seemed odd to think of yourself as a strong writer, if you assess this from text messages and social media.
Texting is the preferred method of communication today, so I started the lesson with the notion that many of this generation entered the workplace with a relatively small amount of experience using e-mail (which of course, is the dominant form of communication in businesses today).
From here, that the workshop slowly descended into the darker depths, where we went into explanations about how to use standard English in ways that professional people consider appropriate, concise and grammatically correct. The workbook I had originally created no longer seemed relevant.
The challenge was that these attendees had fallen into the college writing habit of using more words than necessary just to fill space and this translated into writing e-mails. There was little evidence that they were taught how to be concise in their business writing.
One particular root cause, I discovered, came from college professors’ expectations. Students are often required to hand in 500 word essays on a particular subject. Basing a grade on the number of words used in a paper encourages wordiness. That excess verbiage then becomes the norm for their writing. In addition, many of these students were writing these complicated, wordy papers because they were trying to make their ideas sound intelligent.
Explaining to these attendees that using bloated language, long words or intricate sentences does nothing more than annoy the reader, we embarked on a few activities to prove that point. We started out trying to explain their point in their writing without redundancies.
First, we did an activity to shorten phrases. For example:
Wordy Phrase / Better Phrase
In the near future / Soon
In the event that / When
For the purpose of / For
At the present time / Now
The next activity was to shorten sentences. Here are some examples:
Wordy Sentence / Better Sentence
The invoice was in the amount of $50,000. / The invoice was for $50,000.
There are four rules which should be observed. / Observe these four rules.
There are many obligations which we must meet. / We must meet many obligations.
Getting them to become more aware of the importance of tightening up their writing to avoid repetitious expressions took half the day. Explaining them when it was appropriate to start an e-mail with, “Hey” or “Hi”, required a bit more time. Both challenges were tackled in the allotted workshop time and thankfully without emoticons, acronyms and Twitter-like emails.
Millennials have to gain an understanding of how to write professional e-mails after college, if only their professors would stop assigning 500-1,000 word essays!
I invite you to share your own concise suggestions or thoughts, or comments. You can e-mail or call me for more information on soft skills/interpersonal skills workshops that can transform employees.