Usually the furrowed brows and frowns come early in my business writing training classes. Maybe it’s when we discuss the convoluted phrases that won’t die, but don’t serve either the business writer or the reader. Phrases like, “As you may remember . . . ” (which is a signal you aren’t remembering what the writer wants you to remember) or “Per our conversation of this morning, attached please find . . . ” (You wouldn’t talk like that; don’t write like that. It’s much clearer to say, “Here is the X you asked about this morning.”)
True, those phrases (and all their relatives) have been used for decades. That’s part of the problem–they are dated, creaky, and not practical for the way we read.
There are many sections in my business writing classes where updates to language or communication meet resistance. “We’ve always done it that way,” or “If I change, I’ll be the only one who writes like this,” or, worst, “My boss won’t let me write that way.” The answer I want to say (but rarely do) is, “Your supervisor sent you to this class to learn something new, not to confirm that everything is fine. New ideas always cause a bit of a pushback, but that doesn’t mean you give up.”
Participants are sent to class to learn to communicate more clearly. To make their writing easier to understand. To get to the point. If their writing hasn’t used plain, simple wording, learning how can seem threatening. There’s nothing to hide behind.
After the lunch break, we have a discussion on how to talk about a training class when participants get back to work. It was surprising to discover that this important part of learning is something often forgotten by instructors. Without it, most learning is ignored or forgotten quickly. Here are some points worth digging into with clients and participants:
1. Learning is change. You learn because you want to do things differently. Improving anything signals change. You are learning how to change in class. It will work only if you carry the change back to the workplace and use it.
2. No one knows what you learned in class unless you tell them. So tell them. Bring up the topic with your supervisor and the people you work closely with. Do not make other people wrong because you learned something new. Instead, talk about what you learned that is new. “I was surprised to learn that good writing is using simple language.” Or, “I didn’t expect to learn that business writing is all about the reader.” Be ready to give examples. (Have that workbook handy.)
3. Schedule a meeting with your boss. Review three or four items that you learned and explain how they will improve (not just change) your writing. You were sent to class to learn; show that the investment in you paid off. This paves the way for change by showing you are transferring the knowledge to your work. You are signaling growth and change in a positive way.
4. Link your learning to the class. Someone paid for you to go to class. They expect results. Often, your boss might not link immediate change to learning. Feel free to use phrases like, “Until the instructor mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about X,” or “I’m glad I went to class. I learned X and Y, which should show up in my weekly project report this week.”
5. Start with three specific changes. In class, you practice and receive encouragement. Once back on the job, you are the new expert. Review three changes you want to make and get comfortable with them. You can’t change everything at once. Create a list of small steps and larger steps you want to take and put them in your private calendar or to-do list. If you go back to work, toss the workbook in a drawer and do things the way you used to do them, you will have gained nothing.
In my classes, participants are given my email and told that they can contact me with questions for the next month. The first three days back at work are the most fragile. Once participants start to apply what they learned, pushback is inevitable. Having support and confirmation is important. The most questions come up in the first two weeks. After that, change gains momentum and participants gain confidence. And knowledge sticks and creates change.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches business writing and shows participants how to make it work.