What’s scarier than Halloween haunts? Sucky workplace writing!

Halloween is here, but you know what’s really scary? The billions of dollars lost each year due to sucky workplace writing.

How many billions? How scary can this really be?

Oh, it’s terrifying, trust me: $400 billion. Every. Single. Year.

If that number doesn’t scare you, it should. Picture 400 billion one-dollar bills piled up high and set on fire…a huge bonfire of money going up in smoke, leaving only a dusting of ashes behind.

That’s $400 billion gone, just gone.

Can you even wrap your head around how much money that is?? I can’t. Again, scary!

Josh Bernoff sums it up like this: “America is spending 6% of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.”

“America is spending 6% of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.”

If businesses were losing money in another way, they’d act to stop the waste. They’d change vendors or invest in software to automate processes. They’d outsource. Heck, they’d turn off the lights at the end of the day to reduce the electric bill!

Not the “bad writing” bill, however. It seems everyone’s paying it without complaint.

What if you said “enough”? What if you chose to make workplace writing skills matter?

What if you didn’t watch dollar bills go up in smoke because your business recognized the power (and profitability) of well-written words?

How strong workplace writing benefits your bottom line
Before I get into the ways strong workplace writing saves you money (and can even make you money), let’s look at one example of dollars saved by getting employees trained to do better.

Way back in 2007, Capital One realized employees were wasting far too much time due to the barrage of unclear emails. By sending 3,000 employees through training to improve email writing skills, the company got back 11 days of productivity per employee per year, saving the company $6.6 million dollars every year.

And that’s only email writing that improved.

Multiply that bad writing across the board and you can imagine the negative impact. As Bernoff flatly states, “bad writing is destroying your company’s productivity.”

“Bad writing is destroying your company’s productivity.”

On the other hand, if you improved workplace writing, your business would improve productivity across the board because:

  • Clear writing equals clear thinking equals clear communication.
  • Errors are reduced when communication is clear.
  • The back and forth of confusing emails would stop.
  • Team collaboration would improve.

Plus good workplace writing is good for brand, which can make money. Customers are more confident in businesses with employees who write well, and your brand’s credibility is shaped in part by how well (or poorly) your employees write.

Why workplace writing sucks
If all this can be achieved simply by improving writing skills, why does our workplace writing suck in the first place? How did we get here? Well, it’s complicated. Yet, it’s also important to understand the problem in order to get to a solution, so here are two of the reasons as I see it:

There are signs that the situation will improve, however. Businesses are realizing the importance of strong writing skills. When the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) asked employers which skills they most wanted to see on students’ resumes, 82% said written communication skills. It was the most important skill cited by the employers.

82% of employers cited writing communication skills as THE most important skill they look for in a graduate.

And that makes financial sense when you consider the billions of dollars lost each year, plus the $3.1 billion spent each year to teach employees remedial writing skills. Any business that hires someone with strong writing skills saves money from day one.

What can you do to improve employees’ workplace writing?
But what about you and your business or department? What can you do starting right now to improve writing skills and thereby save money and build brand?

First of all, as a manager or business owner, you have to value good writing or you won’t get good writing. So start by recognizing the key role writing plays in the functioning of your business.

You have to value good writing or you won’t get good writing.

Then you must also get your employees to value strong writing skills—and help them to develop those skills. Here are four ways to go about that:

1) Recognize and praise good writing. People who don’t write well usually struggle to recognize good writing. They don’t know the difference. So start raising awareness. Catch someone doing a nice job, like sending a clear email that reduces back and forth, and let them know you noticed. Consider using good writing as examples for other employees. Improve your own writing skills so you’re a role model for what you expect. You can’t send poorly written emails and expect to get well-written ones in reply.

2) Allow time for better writing. Understand the cult of busy-ness. Then stop rewarding busy-ness and reward productivity and meaningful work instead. Let employees take a little more time when writing and encourage them to do so. Raise the bar on errors and ask employees to proofread before sending an email or chat message. (Why? Because taking the time to proofread will slow them down and help them think more about what they’ve typed.)

3) Consider training. If you started using a new software in your workplace, you’d train employees on it to maximize the benefit of that software, right? So, train them to maximize the benefit of their written communications. For an easy first step, follow the example of Capital One and start with email. My business email ebook costs only a few dollars, yet will dramatically improve your employees’ email writing and use of time. It will pay back dividends!

4) Hire strong writers from now on. Follow Jason Fried’s advice and choose the job candidates with the strongest writing skills. As he says in his book, Rework:

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if the person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever, their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing clear writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking… Writing is making a comeback all over our society… Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.”

Act now to stop losing money to sucky writing
As far as Halloween goes, I’m not into the scary stuff (although I thoroughly enjoy the creativity it brings out in people, like this Zoom meeting costume) because I don’t like being scared. Nor do I like wasting money. Maybe that’s why knowing we lose hundreds of billions of dollars to sucky writing terrifies me? If it bothers you too, even a little, take action to stop the waste. Make strong writing skills part of your workplace, to the benefit of your bottom line.

Sharon Ernst is a retired freelance copywriter now on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes.