Business Writing

Be an Autodidact

Supplementing classes with teach-yourself materials is a powerful approach to lifelong learning.

In recent years I have thought a great deal about how people learn as adults.

In the past, when I wanted to improve my skills in, say, a foreign language, I would automatically sign up for a class. Now, especially with the proliferation of web-based resources, I have realized how much I can learn on my own.

Classes are great. They are, however, a small percentage of your overall lifetime. If you care about improving your oral or written communication skills, we would be delighted to have you attend our workshops, but it would also be an excellent idea to get some teach-yourself resources so you can learn on your own. Commitment is key.

To assist with self-study, we have put the entire contents of our four Syntaxis Press books online, and you are welcome to read those for free. They cover grammar, business writing, email etiquette, and presentation skills — the same content we distribute in physical book form to our corporate clients.

Many adults tell me they wish they knew more grammar. What they often do not realize is how much grammatical knowledge they can acquire on their own.

Besides our books, there are all kinds of resources on written communication skills that could be very helpful. I recommend going to your local bookstore and opening different books and seeing which ones appeal to you.

Such choices are very personal. They depend on what you know, don’t know, and want to know. They depend on aesthetic tastes. Sometimes a book that is highly esteemed just won’t appeal to someone that much.

No matter how esteemed a book is, you will acquire nothing from it if it simply sits on your shelf. It is important to take control of your own learning.

English Spelling: Oh, the Adventure

English is not very user-friendly for the spelling-challenged.

When you consider the radically different pronunciations of similar-looking words in English, it sometimes seems miraculous that people learn to spell at all. On the bright side, the vagaries of English permit writers to produce entire amusing books on the subject of orthography (that’s a fancy word for spelling).

One example on my shelf is Vivian Cook’s humorously titled Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or Why Can’t Anybody Spell? Such works would surely be much less feasible (and entertaining) in highly phonetic languages such as Spanish and Italian.

  A Book Like This Would Not Be Possible for Italian

A Book Like This Would Not Be Possible for Italian

Consider this little collection of English words: “through,” “thought,” “though,” “tough,” and “trough.” Not very welcoming for newcomers to English, and not very friendly to oldcomers either!

A recent Facebook post of mine about spelling generated what I regarded as a rather astonishing flurry of activity, given the subject matter. Friends and acquaintances offered up numerous examples of English words they find hard to spell.

Here are some of them:

  • accommodate
  • accuse (contributed by my seven-year-old nephew)
  • acknowledge
  • across
  • assistance
  • awry
  • beautiful
  • broccoli
  • bureaucracy
  • camaraderie
  • cappuccino
  • Cincinnati
  • column
  • commitment
  • dilemma
  • disease
  • dyslexia
  • eight
  • embarrass
  • exercise
  • harangue
  • harass
  • license
  • lieutenant
  • Massachusetts
  • misogynist
  • Mississippi
  • mnemonic
  • necessary
  • occur/occurred
  • predominant
  • prerogative
  • privilege
  • recommend
  • relevant
  • separate
  • sergeant
  • similar
  • vacuum

See “dilemma” on that list? Until a few years ago, I thought it was spelled “dilemna.” I am not alone, it seems. According to what Michael Quinion writes on his website World Wide Words, many people were taught the incorrect spelling in school. How very weird (that’s another commonly misspelled word, by the way)!

More weirdness: so is “misspell”! And so is “grammar”!

Everyone knows about spellcheck, but I still believe in the value of being able to spell unaided by machinery. In these days of tech-abetted writing, spelling ability is almost like a superpower.

Suppose you have to scribble something on the front of a document before handing it off to your manager! Or imagine you are writing on a whiteboard or flipchart in front of a couple dozen colleagues! What an advantage you will have if you can spell without resorting to Random House.

Spelling studies are a worthy undertaking, even today. Fight flipchart phobia, I say!

Your Earliest Convenience?

This phrase is not always as polite as people believe.

The phrase at my earliest convenience shows up frequently in business communications, often in a way that is less courteous than the user thinks it is.

For example, the phrase can sometimes be heard at the end of outgoing voicemail greetings, as in: “This is Mary Jones. I’m sorry I missed your call. Please leave a message, and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.”

Mary may think the phrase demonstrates her responsiveness, but let’s say a client calls Mary and gets her voicemail. Even though Mary is offering to call the client back at her earliest convenience, she is still essentially saying she will not call back before it becomes convenient for her. And wouldn’t the ideal of good customer service be to base the timing of the return call on the convenience of the client? It may well be convenient for the client to hear back from Mary long before it actually feels convenient to Mary to make that call.

Better, then, for Mary to end her greeting with something along the lines of “I will call you back as soon as possible.”

Multilingualism: Good for Business

Foreign-language skills help you compete in a global economy.

I am concerned about the poor state of grammar education in many American schools, for multiple reasons. One is that I believe a solid understanding of grammar is critical to good writing. Another is that having a grasp of your own language’s structure helps you when you try to learn others.

Monolingual English-speaking Americans are notoriously bad at picking up other languages. Part of the problem is that so many people in the U.S. — again, I am speaking here of monolingual users of English — have a limited understanding of how languages are and can be constructed.

This is a shame. A familiarity with one or more foreign languages can be a career enhancer. After all, not everyone speaks English!

Far from it, in fact. Despite the increasing dominance of English around the world, multilingual employees can deploy their skills in a global economy to communicate more effectively with clients and overseas colleagues alike. In addition, besides bringing possible professional rewards, learning a foreign language is tremendously rewarding personally. It expands one’s understanding of other modes of communication, of other cultures, and therefore of the larger human community.

There are many language courses out there, but busy professionals don’t always find it convenient — or pleasurable — to be tied to someone else’s class schedule. Fortunately, another option is self-study products (audio lessons, grammar books, multimedia applications, etc.) that people can use on their own, and at a pace that suits them, to develop their skills. Even learning just a few key phrases can be fun and helpful!

The Power of an Apology

Customer-service contrition is negatively correlated to the strength of the economy.

When the economy goes down, apologies to clients seem to go up. In economic bubbles, however, they plummet — and fast.

During the recession, a security company was supposed to do an installation for Syntaxis. Their technician didn’t show up, and when I called to check about the appointment, the person I spoke to admitted he had forgotten to pass along the job information.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before promising that the technician would arrive shortly (which he did).

The very same week, I got a second apology, this time from a shipping company that had made a mistake with the mailing address on a package.

Although these two experiences do not constitute a statistically significant sample, an increase in apologies may well be part of a larger trend towards courtesy and accountability in a challenging work environment. Even extremely conscientious people make mistakes from time to time, so perfection is not a reasonable expectation — but a courteous I’m sorry is. Unfortunately, pre-recession customer-service apologies were often hard to come by.

A number of years ago, for example, upon discovering a significant technical glitch, I sent an e-mail to the vendor responsible for that system. Our contact there never apologized, instead writing back simply, “This has been fixed.”

The unwillingness to say the words I’m sorry is a major customer-service failing, yet many people seem to believe they should never apologize to customers, because that would mean admitting a mistake. If a customer knows a mistake has been made, it is unproductive to pretend it hasn’t. In fact, pretending it hasn’t is an excellent way to infuriate customers, even drive them away altogether. (This technique has a similarly dismal record in people’s personal lives; if you are skeptical, try it out with a loved one and see how that goes for you.)

In a recession, when firms in many industries are competing for scarce business, it is natural that the quality of customer service would receive more attention. As the economy shrinks, you see growth in the apology sector.

Now that the economy is stronger again, perhaps the apology sector will once again show signs of decline — although I will hope for a hangover effect from harder times.

Good business etiquette, after all, is always good business!