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Four ways to help team members develop their writing skills

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 18, 2012 - 3:55 PM

When I tell people I meet that I offer training programs in effective writing, a common response is, "Can you believe how poorly people write these days?"

Would that be your response? Would you rant about declining standards and carry on about how no one, especially younger writers, cares about clear, correct writing anymore?

If so, your concerns would not be without merit, and I would interpret your disapproval, perhaps delivered with dramatic emphasis, as an attempt to affirm the importance of what I teach and as a declaration of your allegiance to high standards and the cause of clear communication in a world where so few people practice it. All of which I commend and appreciate.

The problem with this standard response is that it represents an outpouring of negative energy, and if you are a manager and this is your consistent message to your team members, you may not be helping. Instead, you may be undermining your team members' confidence and thereby lowering rather than raising their level of performance.

If you believe as I do that effective managers succeed through challenge and affirmation rather than fear and intimidation, I encourage you to take a positive approach. I'm not suggesting that you lower your expectations but that you articulate your expectations clearly, provide the resources for your team members to meet those expectations and reward them when they do as an explicit component of their job performance reviews.

If you're a ranter, the first step is to change not the content of your message but the tone. Your message is simple: Effective writing is important and achievable, and you are committed to providing the necessary support and resources to help your team members succeed.

The second step is to establish a baseline to determine objectively how good or bad your team members' skills are. This can be accomplished easily (and at no cost) by Googling "Wilbers assessment" and measuring their writing skills on a fifteen-point scale. The average on-the-job writer scores 9. If a team member scores 10 or higher, encourage that person to work on finer points of stylistic technique and persuasive strategy. If a team member scores 8 or lower, send that person back to the basic rules of grammar, punctuation and word choice. Again, a Google search will produce numerous free resources. Objective measures are not hard to come by.

The third thing you can do to promote effective writing in the workplace is to invest in additional resources. This may involve purchasing quick reference guides such as William Sabin's The Gregg Reference Manual, or hiring a trainer - and I don't necessarily mean me. There are plenty of good people out there. One of my main competitors in Minnesota is Stan Berry, and he does an excellent job.

Finally -- and this may be the most challenging step for you -- lead by example. Be a model of good writing yourself. Indicate your commitment to high standards not by carrying on about failure but by demonstrating success.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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