As I was watching the memorial services for former President George H.W. Bush I was struck by how many people, regardless of their political affiliation, commented on the fact that he was a true gentleman and that one of the manifestations of that was his prolific writing of personal notes and letters. These characteristics were clearly appreciated and made a big impact on his friends, family, and colleagues. This reinforced for me how important written communication skills still are in contributing to our perception of others. The old adage “you only get one chance to make a first impression” still holds true. That first impression often comes in the form of a cover letter, a resume, or even an email.
As you may know, I teach a graduate-level class on the commercialization of biomedical diagnostics. I’ve noticed that in the modern era of sound bites, texts and emojis, the art of communication in general and business writing, in particular, seems to have lost some of its perceived importance. Even taking advantage of tools such as grammar and spellcheck seem to have fallen from favor. As I see with some of my students, too often poor or sloppy writing habits get in the way of communicating good ideas. Sadly, persuasive writing (beyond 180 characters) and public speaking are becoming lost arts. This, often invisibly, costs companies a lot of money and may cost individuals that great new opportunity.
Josh Bernoff wrote a piece for The Daily Beast titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. The article includes an amazing statistic; bad writing costs U.S. businesses as much as $400 billion every year. According to Bernoff, American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading, but much of that time is wasted because the material is poorly written.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, all aspects of communication – body language, eye contact, speaking and writing play an enormously important role on the impression we make in both our personal and professional lives. This is as important in lab science and healthcare as in any other business. Our proficiency to communicate well affects our ability to land the roles we want at the organizations where we want to work, as well as our professional advancement, our ability to lead a team, and our ability to influence shareholders, investors, and other important stakeholders. The fact is, we’re often judged on our ability to communicate and it is therefore an important skill to develop and constantly work to improve.
The development of strong writing and speaking skills is actually a differentiator that we can use to set ourselves apart from peers. So, what can we do? We work on it – every day. Carolyn O’Hara, the Managing Editor of The Week, tackled this subject in the Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is a practical approach with several good recommendations including “study good writing” and “cut the fat,” meaning avoid using three words where one word will do.
According to Bryan Garner, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, the good news is that “everyone has the capacity to improve.” Effective professional writing “is not a gift that you’re born with,” he says. “It’s a skill that you cultivate.” I encourage you to do just that. You’ll reap the rewards for the rest of your career.