by Sheree Van Vreede (@rezlady)
It’s funny. I hear a lot of people talking about the importance of strong verbal communication skills these days, but I rarely hear much about written communication skills. I find that odd considering how much written communication the average person now does, from remote work, to documentation, to social media.
Not surprisingly, this same issue translates into our education system. When most people talk about curriculum reform, they talk about the need for more math, science, and technology in the classroom (and for good reason). Usually, the last thing they are thinking about is grammar and the importance of written communication. In fact, by and large, many efforts have been made to downgrade these skills as a side issue to something “larger” (big picture thinking). Sure, our kids still practice writing in their daybooks and journals, producing responses to endless essay questions, and so on. But often they are graded more on their critical thought process than they are on their actual writing ability.
In the age of social media, this is a concern.
I’ve been a remote worker since 1999, and my foundation is in freelance editing for scientific/technical/academic publishing houses. Because I am remote and because I work with documentation written by mostly technical folks, I can tell you that there are three main skill sets that are desparately missing when it comes to written communication these days:
Sometimes I think there is nothing more self-absorbing than e-mail. People rush them off with barely a consideration for how they might be perceived by the person at the other end of the communication. You are expected to understand them. Period.
My business partner and I have an inside joke. Every time we get some terse e-mail, when we follow it up with a phone call, our “lion” quickly turns into a “lamb.” Every time. Why? Because verbal communication tends to make us more engaging and less confrontational. We have a person right there we have to interact with, and unless we are really, really mad, we tend to want to make a connection with that person.
Writing, which should actually heighten this effect, more often than not misses that mark for most people. The reason? Because they are thinking more about themselves than they are about their audience. They forget about the other person who will be reading their diatribe.
Let’s face it. Selfish people are just not that engaging.
Now, I know that learning grammar was probably one of the least favorite subjects by most people in school, but do you know that today very few kids are even learning it? Sure, they get the basics (parts of a sentence), but they learn very little about the true meaning behind most words and how to craft more meaningful texts. Now, I understand not everyone wants to be Shakespeare, but I didn’t want to be Einstein either, and even I still had to learn basic physics. So whether it is fun or not, it is still your language. It would be nice to know more about it!
Let me be clear here. My point is not that people sometimes have typos (as far as I know, none of us is perfect). It’s not even that someone might have difficulty spelling (although it would be nice if they at least tried to use spellchecker from time to time). It’s the general lack of concern for how they present themselves and the embodiment of their work. You don’t have to be stuffy because you choose your words carefully and consider how they are arranged and what they mean. Some of the best wordsmiths are the most entertaining precisely because they have such a strong command of language.
We seem to think that by teaching math and science, we are teaching logic, but that is not the whole picture. Crafting a well-written, cohesive document requires some of the strongest logic skills there are (after all, you are building something out of nothing). And I can tell, whether it is my engineers at Boeing or my PhDs at Harvard, the ability to write something that is logically cohesive is lacking. The reason is because the act of writing has become such a hurried, secondary, unimportant event in our lives; we no longer sit and really think through what it is we want to say and how we want to structure it (in fact, I have had many an author act as though it is beneath them…all this fuss over writing).
But it is not enough just to “know” something; you must be able to connect with your audience.
You know, there once was a time when people actually rated each other on their letter writing abilities, how well they engaged the reader, how proper the grammar, and how cohesive the letter. They didn’t want a list of bullet points, vomiting out what the other person knew. They wanted something that was on point and interesting to read. It meant the person was “educated!”
This all might sound “stuffy” to a “hear-and-now” (as well as a “here-and-now”) generation, but if the popularity of social media is any indication, now more than ever, people want to be heard. They have something to say.
Yet, unless you can communicate it well in writing, I promise you, no one will be listening.