Early in my career at Citicorp, I was promoted to the senior financial position for one of the consumer subsidiaries. Although my responsibilities primarily involved financial issues, one of my tasks was writing the monthly report about our business unit. This report was then sent to the corporate headquarters in New York.
I still vividly remember the very first one I wrote. About an hour after I dropped off my draft, I received an urgent call from the secretary of the president of our unit. Without saying hello, she said, “He wants to see you in his office now.”
With a great deal of trepidation, I walked to his office and looked in. He peered up from his desk over his reading glasses, waved toward me, and indicated that I should sit down across from him while he finished his phone call. When the call was completed, he picked up my draft of the report with two fingers as though it was radioactive. As he handed it to me, I noted that the report was now dominated by an overwhelming amount of red ink: additions, lines, arrows, and deletions.
As I took the report and began to page through it, he stood up from his desk and moved to the bookshelf on the opposite side of the office. Still without saying a word, he selected a small book from the shelf, returned to his desk, and sat down in his chair. He reached across the desk, handed the book to me, and said, “Before you write the report for me next month, master this book.”
The book was William Strunk’s, The Elements of Style. This tiny but powerful book was a concise manual on how to write clearly and specifically. It stressed proper grammar, the use of active tenses, and an encouragement to write in short sentences.
For the next thirty days, this book was my constant companion. In the ensuing months, I referred to it often, especially when drafting the monthly NY report for our business unit.
Over the next year, a pattern was established where I would submit the report and then receive it back several hours later, with his edits and changes in red. After a year of this, the edits I received on each report had declined to about five to ten per report.
As a result, I was surprised about fifteen months later when I received a call from the same secretary within an hour of submitting the draft of that month’s report. She tersely told me, “He wants to see you in his office – now.” I was perplexed and nervous as I walked to his office. What had I done wrong? I wondered.
As I entered the office, he waved me toward the chair across from his desk. He pointed to the phone receiver and held up one finger, indicating he would soon be done.
When he finished his call, he placed the phone in the cradle and looked at me – still with his frustrating poker face. He paused, reached over, and picked up the report that was on a stack on the left side of his desk. He stood up, handed me the report, shook my hand, and with a big smile said, “Congratulations. No changes. Great job!”
I shook his hand as I took the report, returned his smile, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I quickly left the office before he changed his mind.
Over the years, the development of my business writing skills has been a valuable asset. My ability to communicate effectively on the written page has served me well and presented many opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.
The sad truth is that today we have learned to tolerate a poor level of writing skills. This is due at least in part to things like the internet, blogs, FaceBook, texting, and Twitter. Digital communication has given the impression that abbreviations, slang, jargon, and bad grammar are acceptable communication. Our educational systems have compounded the problem by not requiring students to learn to write effectively before they graduate.
However, while acceptable to those with low standards, poorly written communication can often represent a lost opportunity. More importantly, it handicaps those who write poorly when they look for a job or are required to produce a written report, sales letter, or follow-up email.
If you don’t write well, I encourage you to invest some time to improve these skills. If your writing skills are passable (as mine were in the early 1980s), find resources or mentors that will enable your ability to communicate in writing to become an asset.
The fact that excellent written communication is becoming a lost art means that those who learn to communicate effectively will have a competitive edge. Make a decision to gain this edge and commit yourself to improving your writing skills.