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From the lecture hall to the office: here’s how to transform the way your grads write

If your business has just hired fresh graduates, you probably have a long list of things to teach them. But have you included business writing on your list?

If not, don’t be surprised if your grads’ emails read like complicated theses… rather than simple, clear messages.

Let me break it down.

Understanding the rules of effective business writing is essential for success in today’s workforce.

But for many years, formal academic environments have taught us to use ‘sophisticated’ words, impersonal pronouns and long, drawn-out sentences. At uni, cold, jargon-filled language is considered ‘professional’ not painful – and humanity has flown the coop.

That’s why I’d like to share 7 business writing challenges that I overcame as a workforce newbie… and how you can help your grads conquer them too.

1. Raise the active voice

What is the active voice? It’s when the subject of your sentence comes before the verb.

Unlike the passive voice, active sentences are clearer, shorter and more direct. They also inject energy into your sentences – and make them more engaging.

Here, let me show you:

PASSIVE ACTIVE
The soy chai was drunk by Sara Sara drank the soy chai
The proposal was presented by Vikki Vikki presented the proposal
Staff numbers were grown by the business The business grew its staff numbers
On Mondays, Victoria should be avoided in the morning Avoid Victoria on Monday mornings

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Thanks to all the reports and essays they have to write, many grads find it hard to switch from passive to active. In fact – just like me at the start – they probably don’t know the difference.

To help, ask your grads to write out what they want to say. Then, find the subject, put it in front of the verb and adjust the sentence accordingly.

Alternatively, get them to say their sentence out loud first. People don’t tend to speak in the passive voice.

2. Cut the corporate lingo

For the love of good writing, there’s no need to say ‘utilise’ when you can say ‘use’. And there’s definitely no need to say ‘endeavour’ when you can say ‘try’.

You might think that big, fancy words sound smart and professional.

But remember: your goal in writing is not to impress your reader with your vocab. It’s to communicate a clear message. And often, to drive action.

Corporate ‘puffspeak’ is hard to understand. And because most readers are time poor (and don’t have a dictionary on hand), they probably won’t even try.

Here are a few words and phrases you’ll come across often – with some easy replacements:

NAY YAY
Advantageous Helpful, useful
Buy-in Support, agreement
Deliverables Results
Finalise Finish
Holistic Complete
Learnings Lessons
Leverage Gain, win
Mission-critical Critical
Scalable Grow, expand

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As a fresh graduate, puffspeak came easily to me. I was whipping out big words like nobody’s business.

When it comes to finding easier words, an online thesaurus is your best friend. That’s because it holds a bank of simpler alternatives – when you need them most.

You can also get your grads to say their sentences to a friend. Who knows, the words they need may pop up in conversation.

3. Skip the pre-amble – get straight to the point

Whether it’s a casual email or a formal proposal, make sure that key information always comes first. Why?

Because in the corporate world, no one has time for anything. Attention is a scarce commodity, so communication must be quick and easy.

And if there’s something important, but not that important, include it at the bottom.

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To uncover the most important information, start by thinking about your reader.

If your readers were to spend less than eight seconds reading what you wrote, what’s the key thing you would want them to take away?

Ask your grads this question – it’ll help them structure their writing.

They can also turn to their colleagues, friends or family. Sometimes a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

4. Keep your sentences short – and your words shorter

Here’s one sentence I wrote in first-year uni:

The Internet in partnership with other digital technologies, has empowered the social movements initiated by female activists through cost and time-effective dissemination of information and its ability to reach global masses, voice opinions and form communities in a short period of time.

The me of today read it – and got confused in a millisecond. And if I (the writer) got confused, what hope do my colleagues and clients have?

So I did a little number on it using bullet points and shorter, simpler words. Easier to read now?

The internet and other digital technologies empower social movements by allowing female activists to:

  • Spread information quickly and cost-effectively
  • Reach many people around the world
  • Voice their opinions easily
  • Form communities rapidly

PSST… You can also use dashes to create breaks in your sentences.

As a graduate who was so used to writing long-winded sentences, I had trouble cutting things down. But this tiny line saves the day, time and again.

Dashes can also be used to add impact – and suspense. But just like chips and chocolate, they’re best in moderation. After all, you don’t want your grads’ emails to read like a ‘Friday the 13th’ trailer.

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Although they probably won’t critically analyse the internet in their day to day, your grads will eventually have to communicate multiple messages at once.

And when they do, remember:

  • A bullet point list is their BFF
  • If you turn blue reading their sentences out loud, it’s too long (aim for 25 words or fewer)
  • When it comes to words, encourage simple and clear over big and ‘frilly’
  • It helps to imagine the reader – and what they would find easy to read

5. Get personal

Nowadays, the most memorable brands are the ones that talk with humanity. Ones that engage, inspire and make you feel like they’re talking directly to you – even when they’re talking to everyone.

So it’s important that your grads do the same. How? By referring to themselves as ‘me’, ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘us’ and ‘our’… and the reader as ‘you’, ‘your’ or ‘you’re’.

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To help your grads kick this persistent habit, tell them to imagine they’re having a casual conversation.

Get them to say their sentences out loud – and then write them down. After all, they wouldn’t refer to themselves in the third-person when talking to a friend or colleague.

6. Be (and stay) confident

When it came to using qualifiers, being overly polite and using words like ‘could’, ‘maybe’ and ‘just’, I was the number one culprit.

They made me feel modest, as if everything I had to say was loaded and offensive. But in reality, all they did was undermine my confidence – and credibility.

What do I mean? Well, phrases like:

  • Just wondering…
  • Maybe we can…
  • Could you possibly help me with…
  • I hope you’re well and had a great weekend…

Although the last one is nice (especially on a Monday), it’s often unnecessary. That’s because many people skim over it to get straight to the point.

Instead, try putting nice remarks at the end of your emails or letters – to conclude on a positive note.

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For me, this was a particularly hard habit to kick.

Removing these apologetic phrases – and feeling ok with it – took time. It was more about my mentality than the words themselves.

As a newbie to the workforce, your graduate is probably feeling the same. But even though they might be unsure of themselves and their authority, they can still be direct with their intentions.

To help them ease into it, encourage them to just write out what’s in their head – and edit out the unnecessary fluff later.

7. Be pedantic about proofreading

At uni, sloppy grammar and spelling mistakes would cost a few marks here and there.

But if your grads keep mixing up ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in the real world, the consequences can be a lot more severe. It can result in a direct question of their credibility – and the organisation they’re representing.

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Did you know that the longer you stare at a document, the easier it is to miss errors?

That’s because you get so used to reading the same words over and over again – and your brain knows it.

So it’s important to encourage your grads to take a break and tackle the proofreading with fresh eyes. In fact, it’s best to leave it for a night if they can.

Here are other ways to pick up pesky proofreading mistakes:

  • Read the content out loud
  • Find a program to read the content out loud (e.g. the ‘Read aloud’ tool on Microsoft Word)
  • Get someone else to read the content
  • Print it out and proofread on paper
  • Change the font size, colour and style when reviewing

By mastering these 7 tips, your grads will be well on their way to bringing their writing out of the lecture hall – and into the office. Good luck!