Recent research shows that half of hiring managers take a certain qualification into account when making hiring and promotion decisions. What is it? Experience? Technical aptitude? Business acumen?
Actually, the mystery attribute is writing ability. No matter your field or position, your ability to communicate using the written word plays a major role in career success.
Consider these additional findings:
• In a survey of executives by Robert Half International, more than one-third cited typos and grammatical mistakes as the most common resume errors.
• Strong writing skills are even more important for higher-level positions: In a poll by The Wall Street Journal and Harris Interactive, the top complaint about MBA students among recruiters was inferior communication skills.
• In a separate Robert Half International survey, 71 percent of executives said they use email as their primary mode of interaction, underscoring that more people are communicating via the keyboard than ever before.
Don’t fret, though, if your writing skills could use a refresher. These tips can help you improve:
Know What You Want to Say
Before sitting down to write, make sure you know what you want to convey. It seems like an obvious step, but many people rush headlong into a document and discover halfway through that they’ve barely touched upon the topic they set out to discuss.
Formulate a one-sentence statement that describes the purpose of your piece and jot it down. For example, your goal may be to "suggest a new system for generating monthly reports" or "convince a client that our product is the best in the market." Refer back to this statement as you write, and use it as a way to remain focused on your message.
Keep It Simple
A common problem with business documents is that they are difficult to decipher. That’s because the writers are so concerned with sounding sophisticated that their points get lost among convoluted sentences, unnecessary words and confusing phrases.
Consider the following sentence: "In order to ascertain the appropriate course of action regarding the company’s proposed initiative concerning an expansion of current operations into the Asian market, committee members debated the various merits and drawbacks." It may sound lofty to the untrained ear, but most readers won’t have the time or patience to make sense of this statement. A better sentence would read: "Committee members met to discuss the company’s Asian expansion."
To be clear and concise, keep these tips in mind:
• Cut unnecessary words and phrases. That means changing statements such as "it would appear that" to "apparently" and "in addition to" to "also."
• Use short sentences and paragraphs. Long blocks of copy can be intimidating and seem inaccessible to readers.
• Include bullets, like the ones used here, to call attention to certain details. It’s easy for readers to scan lists and get immediate value.
Identify Your Reader
Many documents also suffer from an overflow of jargon and techno-speak. When composing a memo, report or presentation, customize it to your audience. If you’re a member of the finance department, for example, you would want to define accounting and finance terminology in your reports and explain accounting-specific concepts in simple terms.
Remember, what’s clear to you isn’t necessarily clear to your readers. It’s also wise to anticipate the types of questions your readers may have about the information you present. If you propose that the company use a new vendor, for example, executives will want to know the cost savings or customer service benefits and challenges associated with switching the account.
Trust Your Ear
The true test of any written document is how it sounds. So, before distributing your work, read it aloud. Chances are you’ll have an innate ability to recognize words and phrases that sound awkward or forced. For important pieces, such as those that will be sent to senior managers or executives, go one step further and have a colleague review the document to check for typos, grammatical errors and other mistakes.
You may think that success in your current position depends very little on your ability to write well. Think again.
The National Commission on Writing notes that two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility. That includes everyone from administrative assistants who draft departmental memos to sales professionals who prepare client presentations.
So, next time you write, take steps to ensure the documents you produce would make your high school English teacher proud.