The Sad State of Written Communication

The Sad State of Written Communication.

The Sad State of Written Communication

brett west head shotBy Brett West, Director of Media Relations,  Epic PR Group

I don’t know about you, but nothing irks me more than reading and editing a document riddled with mistakes apparently made by a seven-year-old, only to find the author is a well accomplished executive. Half thoughts, run-ons, misspells, compound sentences, incorrect syntax and inventive vocabulary are things that always get under my fingernails like wood splinters. What bothers me more, is that these mistakes, once considered taboo, are becoming increasingly acceptable.

Someone who proves an inability to write effectively strikes us all as someone less “leaderly.”  More importantly, it diminishes their credibility.

There is no doubt that the mad pace of this busy world plays a significant role in our writing abilities. The 24-hour news cycle demands headlines that grab attention. Everything the reader needs to know must be located in the first paragraph of a story. Search engine optimization dictates keys words in content. Clients require memos with bullet points in place of full sentences totaling no more than one page in length. And as though that weren’t enough, the Twittersphere places a 140-character limit on all tweets.

Positioning the bottom line up front and communicating with brevity is hardly causing the downfall of written communication. The problem is priority – a lack thereof.

Once considered blueprints for writing, sentence diagramming and outlining have become long lost art forms.

Given my PR career, I consider it a blessing to have been a seventh grade student of Maryann Ostermeyer, an English teacher affectionately referred to by her students as Miss O. Under Miss O’s tutelage, students struggle through and conquer sentence diagramming to learn the relationship between words and the nature of syntactic structure. Proficiency in this exercise enables the writer to determine how to properly write a sentence. Understanding outlining leads to thoughts that can be articulated in an orderly fashion.

Another painfully difficult lesson Miss O led was on the prefix, root and suffix of words (AND THEIR ORIGINS!!) in order to understand every term thrown our way, and how to use them in intelligent sentences. Education on vocabulary is critical and is missing from today’s set of priorities.

Equally important, Miss O taught us to read literature (no, People Magazine does not count) because edited reading material offers us a chance to see the best of written language in its most appropriate use without mistakes, without slang terms and without improper usage.

I’m not going to sit here at my computer and tell stories about how I walked uphill to and from school in the driving snow of Southern California. I’m not even going to fib to you about how much I enjoyed learning these lessons on vocabulary, sentence diagramming and outlining. Perhaps these skills are tedious to learn – and may be as painful as learning math for a language-oriented person – but they are critical to effective written communication. What I will share is this: mastering these skills allowed me to be a much stronger writer. And being a strong writer is essential in business across all industries.

To those who struggle with written communication, I encourage you to defy laziness and cultural norms. Take classes. Read. Increase your skill level. Challenge yourself. Turn off autocorrect on your smart phone, and turn off spell check on your computer. Pick up a dictionary and review the prefix, root and suffix…not the spelling and definition alone. Hell, if I could get my hands on the syllabus for my seventh grade English class and publish it, we’d all be more proficient writers, and Miss O would be a bazillionaire.

In the global workforce, the proven ability to write effectively offers higher power to influence hire power.

In business, what we say – and how we say it – equates to who we are. And the way in which we communicate is as important as our brand. Whether creating a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad at the pinnacle of a career or participating in an interview for an entry-level job at the onset of a career, the language choices we make are given tremendous significance by our peers, by those in the board room and by those with the decision making power to hire us.


About the Author:  Brett West’s experience in strategic communications spans more than two decades, and crosses into corporate, political and nonprofit sectors. He currently serves as Director of Media Relations at Epic PR Group in Alexandria, VA.