When I interviewed Constance Hale in 1998, I lauded her book, “Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age,” for offering “a spirited interpretation of an unfolding revolution.”
The revolution is still unfolding. But the pace of change has accelerated year by year — and now, it seems, month by month.
In his April 30 New York Times op-ed column, “It’s a 401(k) World,” Thomas Friedman recognizes the uneasiness we’re feeling about having gone “from a connected world to a hyperconnected world.”
Friedman’s take on the transformation is that we live in a tough new world without boundaries, one that rewards the “self-motivated” and leaves behind the less motivated, a world in which “just showing up will not cut it.”
My take is that we’ve lost our consensus on what constitutes effective communication, with some writers bemoaning the loss of traditional standards and formality, others grasping for core values and principles in a rapidly changing environment and yet others — perhaps those most bedazzled by the wonders of technology — overlooking the importance of basic writing skills.
In the past few months more and more clients have asked me to offer training to their younger writers — bright, talented, hardworking staff members, emerging leaders whose writing skills lag behind their other accomplishments.
“They don’t know the basic rules of grammar,” I’m told. “They don’t know how to write anything but short messages,” I hear. “They lack a sense of business etiquette,” they tell me, not only in communication practices but also in table manners and other “social graces,” to use an outdated phrase.
And yet the younger generation is so bright. They’re so quick, adaptable and comfortable in our rapidly changing environment. Even as they excel in the new, however, they still need to learn the old. They need to know grammar, punctuation and correct word choice. They need to know how to write.
Here are six things all writers can do to communicate effectively in our hyperconnected world:
1. Define your purpose. Don’t type your first word until you can complete this sentence: “The purpose of this message is to …” As Dartmouth professor Mary Munter advises in “Guide to Managerial Communication,” ask yourself what you want your reader to do or think as a result of reading your message.
2. Know your audience. Ask yourself, what does your reader know, and how much do you need to explain? How can you appeal to shared values, interests and goals to motivate your reader?
3. Outline your material. Although the process of writing can clarify your thinking and lead to unanticipated conclusions, in most on-the-job writing it’s better to know where you’re going. Identify your main points before you begin your journey.
4. Look; don’t guess. Use dependable resources. For my suggestions, Google “Wilbers resources.” For a list of 75 common errors, Google “Wilbers errors.”
5. Proofread your writing. All the knowledge in the world won’t protect you from a careless error. Slow down. Take another look.
6. Read good writers. If you’ve never watched a graceful dancer do the waltz, how can you expect to learn the step?
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.