From the lecture hall to the workplace: are you teaching your grads this core skill?

From the lecture hall to the workplace: are you teaching your grads this core skill?

If your business regularly hires graduates, you probably have a long list of things to teach them.

But have you included business writing on that list?

If not, don’t be surprised if your grads’ emails read like dense, analytical theses – rather than direct, clear and concise messages.

Remember school, when formal, jargon-heavy language made you feel oh-so-sophisticated and smart?

Yep, me too. That’s why I’d like to share some writing challenges that I am overcoming as a workforce newbie… so that you can help your grads conquer them too.

Raise the active voice

Back in school, sentences like, “The essay was written by Alexander Hamilton to promote the ratification of the Constitution of the United States,” would have got you full marks.

That’s because we’re all taught and conditioned to write passively in academic settings.

So, when your grads come to work ready to write, it’s no wonder they don’t know that writing passively is usually not the way to go in the real world. You need to teach them that there is a better way to write.

What’s that, you ask? It’s writing in the active voice! 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:

The book was read by Zach.Zach read the book.
The proposal was sent by Vikki.Vikki sent the proposal.
A positive culture was built by the business.The business built a positive culture.
Coffee should be drunk in the mornings.Drink coffee in the mornings.

So how do you write in the active voice?

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

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

Simplify your words

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

Your grads might think that big, fancy words make them sound smart and professional.

But remember: our goal in business writing is not to impress readers with our 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:

AdvantageousHelpful, useful
Buy-inSupport, agreement
LeverageGain, win
ScalableGrow, expand

To find simpler words, an online thesaurus is your best friend.  

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

Skip the pre-amble  

Whether it’s a casual email or a formal proposal, make sure that key information always comes first. That means forgo the qualifiers and overly polite language.

Ditch phrases like:

  • I’m 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 usually unnecessary. That’s because many people skim over it to get straight to the point.

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

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

Keep sentences short – and words shorter

Back at uni, one sentence might look a bit like:

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.

Confusing, right?

Now take that same information, rewrite it using plain English and dot points, and you are left with:

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.

And remember: you’re writing for scanners, not readers.

This is especially important for your grads to know when they want to communicate multiple – and often complex – messages. And when they do, remind them that:

  • A bullet point list is their BFF
  • If they turn blue reading their sentences out loud, it’s too long (aim for 25 words or fewer)

PSST… You can also use dashes to create breaks in your sentences – or add suspense.

Make it personal

The world’s 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 using first- and second-person language: referring to your business as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ – and their reader as ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’.

To help your grads kick this persistent habit, tell them to imagine they’re having a casual conversation. After all, they wouldn’t refer to themselves in the third person when talking to a friend or colleague.

Be pedantic about proofreading

At school and 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 costly.

It can result in a direct question of their credibility. And your business.

Encourage your grads to take a break and tackle the proofreading with fresh eyes. If they can, it’s best to leave it for a few hours – or even better, until the next day.

Other ways to pick up pesky proofreading mistakes include:

  • Reading their work out loud  
  • Printing it out and proofreading on paper
  • Changing the font size, colour and style when reviewing so that the document looks different and unfamiliar

Here at RM, we run regular writing skills workshops for professional services firms as part of their annual graduate induction programs.

So if you want to invest in the core skills of your grads as they transition into your workplace, check out our business writing workshops.