I have developed a small series of workshops, with accompanying reading material, for business environments within which a lack of writing skills or clear communication has been identified. I think the biggest roadblock to being positively received by employees who are selected as needing such training will be their defensive attitudes. And, truly, I can’t fault them for that. No one likes to be singled out as “lacking” at work, especially when one is plugging away and doing the job he or she was hired to accomplish. It isn’t these people’s fault that their employer did not include a writing prompt to measure their skills during the hiring process.
I plan to ask the business owner to pull as many past examples of problematic writing as he can locate. This would include items like past emails and copies of correspondence between his staff and outside clients. Going over this material will give me a rough idea of where we should begin.
So, the question becomes, how, with no teaching experience, do I walk into someone else’s job and give instruction that will be well-received?
So far, my answer to that is to approach the training as more of a team-building exercise than a traditional classroom experience. At the moment, I am posing Grammar, Business Writing, Editing/Proofreading, and Clarity as four possible training modules. I have been looking at websites of writing consultant businesses, http://writingconsultants.net/train/ in particular, to get ideas of different possible focus areas for training. I want to teach these people, but I want to make a game of it too, so that interest levels stay high. I have also ordered Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose to help me develop ideas for the content of training sessions.
Chapter 1: In which We Seek Clarity
The week after I finished my new business’ website – I decided on The Right Write as the company name – I received a call from a very worried Mr. Ray Davenport, the owner of Greenleaf Enterprises. His company specializes in eco-friendly office equipment and he mentioned that a number of complaints about his Customer Representative unit have come to his attention. As these are the employees who have direct contact with company clients and who are also responsible for coherently conveying the customers’ needs to the manufacturing division of the company, Davenport seems quite motivated to fix the problem.
Below is a copy of a hire letter that, luckily, Ray Davenport was able to intercept before Ms. Reagan had the opportunity to realize how unskilled his administrative associate can appear when she doesn’t proofread. We will, of course, be discussing the fact that spell check in Word cannot catch all mistakes
Dear Ms. Reagan,
I am pleased to offer you the position of Sales Force Supervisor within Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division (position #673323). The offered position is full-time beginning May 1, 2017 at an annual salary of $53,250.00. You will be paid monthly.
The company’s Personal Policies and Procedures Manual can be found at:
Benefits information can be found at http://www.greenleaf.org/indexm ektid6283.aspx. Additional policies and procedures manuals are available for review through our Office of Human Resources.
Greenleaf is an at-will employer, and is required by federal law to verify the identity and work authorization of all new employees. Accordingly, this offer is contingent upon verification of identity and eligibility to be employed in the United States. Please consult with Leslie Rogers at 517-322-3253 for further information regarding this requirement.
You may indicate acceptance of this position verbally returning a signed copy of this letter to me at the address indicated on the letterhead. I would appreciate receiving a response to this offer by May 17, 2017. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions about the division, the company, or the terms of this offer. Welcome to Greenleaf Enterprises. We are delighted to have you join the company and I look forward to working with you hope to see you soon.
CEO, Greenleaf Enterprises
I knowledge receipt of this letter and I accept the position as offered.
The second is an interoffice email in which an employee is reporting in on her sales group’s progress on their quarterly report. We will certainly be discussing the proper way to format an email, in addition to issues of sentence structure.
Sent: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 7:21 PM
To: Rebecca Young <email@example.com
Subject: Group project evaluation
I thought the group project from the circumstances worked very well. There were sometimes when we had time during meetings when we weren’t enough people there to work on it but then we Worked it out by textning and emailing each other.”
I do not want to use the collected writing samples as a teaching tool, even with the names of the authors blacked out, because this would likely come across as finger pointing and I am betting that, even with names redacted, these employees work closely enough that anonymity would not be guaranteed. I am trying to help these people, not alienate them. My will be for us to do a series of tasks as a group, then ask team members to write a brief passage about what we did. Our first training session will be on the topic of Clarity and the fact that, in order to write with clarity, one must keep sustained focus on the task at hand.
Greenleaf’s Customer Representative Division is relatively small, just twelve people. I have divided them into three teams of four for these trainings. First, we go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and tell the group how long they have been with the company and explain their position. This is more for my benefit, obviously, but it is still a step in the exercise. Next, teams talk among themselves about the most amusing thing that has happened during each person’s work week. After a few minutes, we go around the room again and someone from each group shares to the room as a whole the funniest anecdote from their team. Next, as the three groups help themselves to cheese, crackers, and veggies that my company has provided, we play three rounds of bingo as a group.
Afterward, as group members are laughing and talking together, I can tell a difference in the mood of the room. These employees were resistant to the idea of writing training initially; they arrived in the conference room in combative and defensive moods. But the purposefully relaxed mood of our first session has mollified them. Just as we are about to end this first day of training, I ask everyone to spend some time, either this afternoon or over the course of the next day, and write two pages worth of what they recall from this first session. I request that their accounts be written with attention paid to the order in which events occurred. They are also welcome to include their own feelings or thoughts about the tasks we completed. Their assignments should be emailed to me no later than Wednesday, so that I will have time to study how well and with what degree of clarity they reflect what we did together on Monday, this first day. When I return on Friday, we will discuss the results together.
Below are two of the emails that I got back from Greenleaf’s employees after Monday’s first training session. As you can see, clarity is a struggle for some. What I noticed about these two examples is that neither accounts for each of the activities that we did as a group. It certainly brings to mind the first step in the RBT that discusses how struggling writers often have trouble accessing stored memories. I also wondered if perhaps these two employees left out our first activity (individual introductions) because, of course, they already know each other. In my thinking, the introductions were still part of the activity.
Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 11:56 PM
To: Ashley Warren <firstname.lastname@example.org
The writing lady showed up on Monday. We think she being here is a waist of time I can’t believe that she gave us homework. The team part was good, we just sat there and talked and make each other laugh. My team made me be the one to stand up and tell about what happened last week with that supply order of pens. I swear I ordered a gross of pens and they shipped me 144 pin backs! I don’t remember what Rhonda said next, but people laughed. Then the writing lady had food for us, but she must be crazy because who serves snacks without ranch???
Sent from my iPhone
Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 12:09PM
To: Ashley Warren <email@example.com
I hope I understand these directions. You just want us to talk about what happened, right? You remember my story about seeing Paul snort water in front of the cooler when Shantice told us about her weekend? That was pretty funny. Thanks for the snacks I didn’t get time for lunch on Monday, so they helped alot. I hadn’t played bingo since when I used to visit my Granny at the home in Mississippi. It was fun.
Okay. The key here is for me to not be deterred by the fact that, out of 12 people, only two completed the assignment correctly. Instead I am focusing on the fact that, in addition to lack of recall from Monday’s activity, the majority of the emails I received also indicate that the business writing and proofreading sessions that I had considered are greatly needed.
On Friday morning, I return to Greenleaf’s conference room. One benefit from their facilities is that the room is equipped with cameras that are typically used to record meetings and conference calls, so that they can be reviewed later by customer representatives. As employees enter the room, they see that I have cued Monday’s training session and have the video displayed on the wall screen. After greeting everyone, I explain that we are going to briefly review the sequence of events, just to see if this causes anyone to reconsider his or her email to me. I start the video, letting it run as we watch the initial round of introductions and then as they break into teams. I fast forward through their group discussions, then let the video run again as we watch one person from each group share an amusing story. Finally, we watch as I lay out snack platters and hand out bingo cards.
I ask for a show of hands of those who, in retrospect, feel like their homework doesn’t quite match everything that went on Monday. Right now, we will not discuss the other issues I noticed in their submissions (issues like misspellings, run-on sentences, unprofessional tone, and the fact that a number of people emailed from personal email accounts). I look around and see eight hands raised. I ask the room, “What did you guys leave out?” Answers vary, but almost everyone realizes that they omitted the initial round of introductions. Most also realize that they left out two or more of the anecdotes from the team-based sharing activity.
Chapter 2: The Business of Business Writing
It’s the following Monday morning, and we are back at it. “Good morning, everyone. I have a question: have any of you ever gotten an email that made you angry or frustrated and, in the heat of the moment, you fired off a reply before you had time to calm down? Raise your hand if this has happened to you, please.” I see two hands in the air and, slowly, several more are rising. “See, this has happened to most of you. We’re going to talk about that today. Also, we’re going to talk about emails like this,” I say, as I open a file on the presentation screen.
Sent: Wednesday, December 14, 2016 9:00 AM
To: Greenleaf Customer Representatives, Eastern Division
Subject: Amping Up
Hi Greenleaf Family!
You guys all know that Christmas is coming up! Let’s all work on awesomizing and galvanizing the end of what’s already been an killer year of sales! I know it seems like everyone is super busy this time of year, but I am sure, with a little more attention, we can all make a few more sales and happy customers before we go home for the holidays! Don’t forget, your holiday bonuses are tied to the sales numbers of the entire year!
Greenleaf Regional Sales Coordinator
There is a collective groan around the table. “See everyone, this type of business email is just as much of a cardinal sin as the ones that get sent off too quickly in moments of aggravation. Why did seeing this email from last year get everyone so irritated?”
Sharon, whom I have noticed is paying a lot more attention since our second group meeting, raises her hand. “Because Ms. West never tells us how to do anything! She just uses these fake-sounding words and everything has explanation points.”
“Exactly! Does everyone see how these two scenarios illustrate two aspects in which writing is failing to be professional? When you don’t have a proper cooling off period before responding to an angry or frustrated email, you’re doing the recipient a disservice and not behaving in a businesslike manner. Remember that tone is sometimes hard to interpret correctly through email; perhaps whomever you are corresponding with is not actually frustrated at all, or maybe he or she is having a hard day at work and the irritation has nothing to do with you. At the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s look at Alex West’s email again. See how, just like Rhonda said, it is peppered with these empty words. What exactly is ‘awesomizing,’ any ideas?”
Ray, who has spoken little over our three sessions, grumbles, “I lost most of my Christmas bonus because West didn’t give us any concrete advice. I didn’t know what to do to save that contract with Phelps.”
“Yes! These empty, exciting-sounding words are just as much of a failing as letting your emotions get in the way of clear communication. One email is overshadowed by frustration, the other is clogged up with words that have, at best, ambiguous meaning. Okay, for this week’s assignment, I would like you all to spend some time at your computers digging through your email. Find one occasion where you sent a client or a coworker a frustrated response. In light of what we discussed, please rewrite the email with a more professional tone. Send both to me by Wednesday. Also, let’s have a little fun with Ms. West. Why doesn’t everyone spend a little time jotting down what you think ‘awesomizing’ and ‘galvanizing’ mean, in terms of job-related tasks? We can send her our list of guesses, and perhaps this will encourage her to use more helpful language with you guys.”
Stay tuned (please).
Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Good Prose. Three Rivers Press, 1999.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.