As communicators focused on the importance of language and communication skills we sometimes forget we’re in a specialty area more easily practiced by some people than others. The issue was highlighted for me some months ago when I came across a Conference Board of Canada report showing only 21 per cent of Canadian adults have high literacy skills. The report which came out about a year ago, analyzed information collected earlier this decade as part of an extensive comparative global study of literacy skills in adults aged 16 to 65.
The report defined high literacy skills as those which allow an individual to integrate several sources of information and solve fairly complex problems; the kicker is that the Conference Board states that a country’s economic potential is strongly correlated with its literacy levels.
Writing is a foundational skill that businesses need in order to meet internal communication goals such as:
• ensuring management priorities are clearly understood and supported;
• effectively explaining company policies and procedures and eliciting compliance thereto;
• analyzing and resolving problems as they arise; and
• motivating employees to work as a team to support company objectives.
Low literacy rates mean employees may not understand what they’re supposed to do; they might also not feel motivated to deliver high levels of compliance. Either scenario will have a negative effect on corporate results.
External communication is important, too. Quality writing helps businesses:
• explain who they are, what they provide and why they’re different from their competition;
• motivate people to buy from them;
• maintain successful business relationships with suppliers;
• generate respect within their peer group; and
• show regulatory boards and government organizations that they are in full compliance with the law.
Confuse people at any stage and the bottom line will suffer.
I’ve spoken with many business people who find the problem extremely frustrating. I’ve been told that even a university degree is no guarantee of writing competency and many managers are appalled at the shoddy quality of writing their employees submit to them in the course of an average day. The problem is that the situation forces many managers to spend valuable time rewriting work that is substandard and, in some instances, an embarrassment to their department.
This is an issue that requires compassion, rather than blame. Some businesspeople feel it’s not the job of colleges or universities to train people to write competently and that this is a topic that should be taught by public and high school teachers. Regardless of who is at fault, everyone’s best efforts are needed for a company’s success.
Is this a problem?
The world is full of countries looking for a competitive edge right now and although we can’t snap our fingers and instantly imbue every employee in the nation with great grammar and beautiful syntax, here are my grassroots suggestions for nudging us towards a solution:
1. Parents should buy their kids an elementary school language skills work book and oversee at least half an hour a week of routine language drills; I suggest the young people progress through different levels of the same series of books until it seems easy.
2. If you’re not sure about your own literacy skills, do it for yourself first.
3. If you want to be more competitive in the workplace, go to your local community college and sign up for (and attend) a basic writing skills class.
4. If you own a business, try (somehow!) to fit writing skills enhancement into your own professional development program – and consider hiring a writing coach or trainer for employees. We’re each on our own continuum: even with nearly 30 years of career writing experience I work with an editor to improve my novel writing skills.
At its best, language is a power tool and we’re all operators. Get good at the operational end and there’s no telling what we can build!
Susan Crossman is a career writer who promotes excellence in communication through writing with clarity. Her freelance writing services include web content,newsletters,reports,speeches and other custom documentation. For more details, please visit her website at http://www.crossmancommunications.com