Many companies over the past few years have introduced business writing training programs to improve the quality of the letters, reports and emails of their staff. Some programs have been enormously successful; others have fizzled.
The reason: employees will change only if senior management is thoroughly sold on the need for change and announces that all employees are expected to co-operate. One of the most successful business writing training programs I was involved with had the president’s full backing; he demonstrated this by announcing that writing ability was to be considered in every job appraisal. And he wanted his employees to equally proficient in emails and report writing.
A second problem involves learning strategies. Learning a new activity and turning it into a habit takes only a couple of weeks. However, research shows it usually takes about six weeks to unlearn a long-term behaviour and to firmly entrench a change. This is particularly true for writing as we have all been doing some form of writing since early grade school. Changing academic writing into a style befitting letters, reports and emails takes time and energy.
Unfortunately, too many training programs do not offer a follow-up method to keep the changes fully in the forefront of the employee’s mind for the necessary period of time.
If you are planning to initiate a writing program for your company, here are proven ways to ensure your success:
- Work with an experienced trainer in business writing to design a workshop specifically tailored for your staff. Determine your focus: writing, letters, emails, reports, proposals, etc. Involve your managers in the objectives of the workshop.
- Have managers attend a shortened version of the workshop so they understand what their staff will be taught or — better yet — have them attend the workshop with their staff.
- Have each workshop introduced by a high-ranking executive to give it proper weight. The introduction should stress the purpose and importance of the program.
- Deliver the workshop to groups of 15 to 20 people, preferably from the same department. A two-day workshop with built-in practice sessions works well. (In my experience, you will get even better results if you spread the program over a month using ½ day sessions. However, the downside of this is monitoring attendance to ensure staff members attend all four sessions.)
- Present each participant with a comprehensive manual to be used during the workshop and then kept as a reference guide after the course.
- Insist that after the workshop, participants submit samples of their writing at regular intervals to ensure they are continuing to incorporate the new style. The samples should be submitted two weeks, six weeks and ten weeks after the workshop. The samples should be critiqued and returned directly to the writers with suggestions for any necessary improvement.
- Set up an internal hot-line number to assist participants with specific writing problems.
- Send staff — periodically — brief reminder bulletins or emails on writing points. Include articles on business writing in the company newsletter.
- Update all the company’s forms. This is a key area and one that is often overlooked.
- Prepare a brief style manual for all employees describing how your organization wants its business documents laid out. Among other things, the manual should include recommended type sizes, fonts, and the company rules for capitalization and spelling. Every new employee should be given a copy.
Too often training doesn’t take because of limited buy-in or follow up. However, following these proven steps guarantees your company’s money and your staff’s time are well spent. And you will notice a definite, long-term difference in the written communications of your people.
Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network.