Why we neglect the #1 skill in business

Iceberg much bigger below the surface of the water than aboveWhat is the one activity that unites all desk-based jobs?

Here’s a clue: you probably do this as soon as you get into the office (if not before). In fact, if you work at a desk, this activity probably takes up more time than anything else you do, regardless of your occupation.

If you’re a knowledge worker (that is, you’re paid to think, advise and make decisions), you do it for most of your day, every day.

Not only that, but it’s an activity that, badly handled, almost certainly causes more anxiety, more arguments and animosity, more stress and even more lost customers than any other.

We do it all the time, yet we rarely think about it. So it should be no surprise that we often get it wrong. We ignore it at our peril. Yet ignoring it is exactly what most of us do.

Still no idea? OK, here’s another clue: it’s what makes possible what you’re doing now.

I am, of course, talking about writing. Writing information, writing email, writing instant messages, writing customer live-chat sessions, writing reports.

And when you’re not writing any of the above, chances are you’re probably reading an example that someone else has written.

We all depend on it

If you combine writing and reading into one, you’ve pretty much covered the major part of millions of jobs. Written communication of one form or another is now what makes up most of our working lives. If you’re reading this, then, by definition, you’re someone who relies on it in some way.

Over the last ten years in particular, written communication has become our default mode of getting messages to each other. Once, we wrote only reports and proposals (and the odd memo). Now, we’re in a constant written dialogue with multiple people – be they colleagues, customers, clients, prospects or potential employers.

By default, we now tend to use written communication to exchange information with our colleagues rather than speaking with them. Partly this is down to the rise of remote working and distributed teams. But that’s not the whole story. The fact is, just as we use our mobile phones mainly to text (not speak to) each other, so it is that we often prefer to message and email colleagues even if they’re sitting at the next desk.

Hidden in plain sight

When you stop to think about it, it’s writing all the way.

The trouble is, we don’t think about it – or at least, we don’t think about it in that way. Most of us don’t see what we spend most of our day doing as writing. That in itself is a testament to just how ubiquitous writing has become. It’s hidden in plain sight.

Most organisations spend 10 times as much on presentation-skills training as they do on improving written communication – even though most people give a presentation once in a blue moon, yet write all day. Click To Tweet
But that doesn’t change the fact that written communication has become an activity on which most organisations now depend, not just to thrive but to function at all. It’s not just a core skill: it’s THE core skill. It’s become a key part of every customer exchange, every strategy plan and virtually every decision – big or small.

Given this fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that training in how to perform this function well would have become equally ubiquitous. But you’d be wrong.

Which companies train staff in writing skills

Obviously this is very much our area. So we’re perfectly positioned to report on how many organisations train in written communication and how they choose to do it.

Here at Emphasis, we’ve been training in written communication for almost 22 years. We probably now run more courses in the subject than any other specialist provider in Europe (if not the world). Here’s what we know.

First of all, the good news: most sectors now provide training in this area. Among those who do are the world’s biggest tech giants right through to the largest government departments. Magic Circle law firms, Big 4 accountants, leading manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms and top charities are also on board. There’s a lot of training going on.

More than 60,000 people have taken part in our programmes since we set out (almost all in groups of eight to ten people), from around 6,000 organisations. It’s also growing in popularity: we helped around half those 60,000 people in the last seven years. (The latest client logos on our new home page illustrate this.) And each year, on average, we train around ten per cent more people than we did the year before.

So far, so good. Clearly, the word is out, and many business leaders are recognising the importance of written communication in the modern workplace.

Most get no training

But dig a little deeper and the picture is not always so positive. Writing-skills training is often reserved for one or two departments, with the rest (presumably) receiving no training in this core skill. Those leaders who do come to us requesting training for their teams are usually in a minority.

In fact, according to our estimates, organisations typically spend at least ten times as much on presentation-skills training as they do on improving written communication. That’s despite the fact that most people only ever give a presentation once in a blue moon, yet write all day, every day. So why this disparity?

Well, fear and perception play a part in both cases. There’s no doubt that more people fear public speaking than fear writing. (No surprise there, considering that more people fear public speaking than do death, apparently. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, ‘That means that, if you’re at a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.’) So it’s understandable that more should ask for help with making presentations.

But it’s also true that we think writing is something we should be able not just to do but to do well, given that most of us have been doing it since early childhood. In our experience, people are often reluctant to ask for help because they’re embarrassed to think that they even need it. Some even fear ridicule.


This too points to a misperception: it’s unlikely that the writing skills you learned at school are sufficient for business-critical communication in the modern workplace, just as the biology you learned back then might need augmenting before you step into an operating theatre and perform an emergency appendectomy.

We also perceive presentations to be very important – which, granted, many are. Writing, on the other hand, is, as I said, something we think we just ‘do’. Even though ‘do’ in this case covers just about every activity at work (including communicating key decisions, contesting actions, sharing knowledge, asking for help and solving the biggest problems).

But that is precisely why so many emails misfire and so many arguments start on instant messaging. It’s also why traffic on our website spikes on Sunday evenings, as hard-pressed employees finally admit that they need help with writing the report or proposal that’s due in that week.

Transform working lives

Seeing those stats breaks my heart, as I think of all the people who suffer in silence. But those people searching on our website are the lucky ones. It may have taken a looming deadline to make them face facts. But at least they recognise that they could do with a little support in this area.

When they finally get that help (assuming it’s offered by someone who knows what they’re doing), they’re in for a pleasant surprise. For, given the ubiquity of writing these days, they’re about to discover a set of skills that will transform their entire working lives.

Image credit: Romolo Tavani / Shutterstock

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