Nearly everyone I know works in an identical office, regardless of their job. We each have the same desktop, the same filing system, the same “typewriter” and the same messaging system. Peek over the shoulder of any office worker at his computer and I’m pretty sure you’ll be in familiar territory (just be prepared to look away again very quickly).
And that’s pretty cool. The capability that modern software provides means that any one of us can do just about every conventional office task using a familiar set of tools, from writing a letter to balancing a budget, albeit with differing levels of ability. Thanks to computers it’s even possible to run a successful business by yourself. But this newfound ability has come at a cost. Because it has become possible to do so many things at our own desk without the help of others, our employers expect us to actually do them all as part of our job.
Up until the 1980s, a well-run office invariably had someone whose job it was to ensure that things ran smoothly. This person (let’s face it, usually a woman, I’ll call her Joan from Mad Men) would also be responsible for typing up the letters and generally keeping all the plates spinning, while the technicians and strategists and salesmen did their own thing, which usually involved lunch. Joan was the glue that kept the office together. She was very good at organising, and exceptional at communicating, not only with people within the office but also with whatever customers and suppliers formed the basis of the business. Joan had a terrific big-picture view of the organisation, and also had a pretty big say in what that picture looked like.
Then came the desktop computer and it was bye-bye Joan. It was a sad but inevitable progression in the corporate world, as beancounters everywhere realised that for the cost of one Joan you could buy fourteen IBMs.
So now here we sit, alone in our cubicles, with permission (the expectation, even) to do the job that was once Joan’s, particularly the endless writing that’s involved; when we're not writing, we're probably reading or talking about something that we'll have to write about later on. This highlights two problems. The first is that some people are generally crap at writing. I’ve found that just because someone is extremely clever doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good with words.
The second problem is that when viewed as a whole, this inconsistency in the quality of communication among people in the office can not only look really bad (and unprofessional) from the outside, but can also cause major inefficiencies in process and workflow. Without Joan to keep us in line we do things our own way (and of course that’s the best way), which can lead to differences in quality and in many cases unnecessary duplication of effort. When it comes to getting our corporate message out there we are often guilty of not singing the same tune as everyone else.
Since Joan left, astute managers everywhere have been collaring those of us to whom writing does not come naturally. They make notes in our performance appraisals that our writing needs improvement, and send us off to courses titled “writing for government” and “communication for dummies”. I know this because for many years I’ve run this kind of workshop. And what have I learned? Mainly that these sessions do little to improve the problem that the aforementioned astute manager has identified. A half-day course on how to write better will not significantly improve your writing ability, nor will it address the underlying sickness of poor communication practice in the office.
So, let’s take a step back.
I don’t care if you put the apostrophe in the wrong place, or that your spelling is bad, or even if you occasionally dangle your participles; there are plenty of egg-sucking forums out there that will explain the difference between your and you’re, should you want to read them. There’s much more to writing than spelling and grammar. The odd thing is that people who are good at spelling and grammar tend to think they are good writers but this isn’t always the case. The secrets to good writing are far more wide ranging than grammatical rules and are mainly based in common sense; there are plenty of beautifully-written works out there that don't say anything useful, and plenty of amazing ideas with typos in them.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 15 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.