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The Write Stuff


Business' reliance on written communication is greater than ever with the advent of email, but at the same time more organisations seem to feel that their staff don't make the grade when it comes to writing clearly and accurately. This case study looks at how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office used training to boost staff writing skills.

“The Chairmans recent resignation was a shock to the hole organization and it's affect and repercussions are still being felt. The company are in a state of flux and change and their will be more changes to come no doubt.”

Poor writing, such as the spoof paragraph above, costs UK businesses millions of pounds each year in lost revenue and damaged corporate image. Research conducted by the Royal Mail and the CBI estimate this cost may be as high as £10bn per year. The loss of focus on instilling the principles of good writing at school combined with the advent of email, text messaging and spell checking facilities, means that many employees are simply unable to write correctly. It appears that we have lost the skills required to produce well articulated, appropriately punctuated and grammatically correct correspondence.

The quality of the written material emanating from an organisation says a great deal about it in terms of its professionalism, attention to detail and commitment to high standards. Clarity of communication ensures that the opportunity for misunderstanding is minimised when conveying instructions, actions and agreements. This has a real organisational benefit by reducing time, effort and money wasted through pursuing inaccurate specifications or directives. Furthermore the advantage of flawless internal communication can be seen in enhanced time management and improved employee confidence as accuracy in written work increases. Effectively communicating with colleagues and clients should be an essential skill for every employee in every organisation.

Core skill
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) identified that effective written communication should be an essential core skill for FCO employees and all members of staff should be required to master a level appropriate to their grade and responsibilities. In response to this, the FCO engaged Communicaid as its partner for written communication skills courses. Communicaid designed and delivered a series of writing programmes to address and meet the diverse needs of the target audience from support staff right through to middle and senior managers.

The Professional Skills for Government (PSG) programme is a Civil Service-wide initiative, aimed at enabling all Civil Service employees to develop the professional skills necessary to carry out their roles more effectively. The FCO’s Board is fully committed to implementing PSG across the organisation as a means of not only developing professional skills and motivating staff, but also as a means of fostering longer term organisational improvements. The programmes designed by Communicaid met with the spirit and practice of the PSG initiative. The FCO’s key training objectives were to review and adopt key principles of effective writing and the current “best practices” which they already had in place for written communication. Adding effective value to each employee’s written communication is all about reducing the amount of time spent redrafting FCO documents; clearly something which should be an essential goal of any organisation. The training that Communicaid designed had to meet all the objectives while still ensuring that the interest and imagination of FCO staff were captured. All existing FCO guidelines for drafting and writing were also incorporated into the programmes.

Effective writing
In order to ensure that the courses were relevant to FCO staff, Communicaid analysed samples of FCO documents and held detailed discussions with the FCO’s Learning and Development Team. Communicaid then designed two programmes in line with the FCO’s objectives. ‘Effective Writing’ is a full day course aimed at junior managers and support staff within the FCO and provides an introduction to the principles of effective writing within the FCO. ‘Writing with Impact’ is a half day programme for more senior managers and enables delegates to develop high level writing skills and to increase the readability of their writing. Before attending either programme, delegates are required to complete a diagnostic consultancy questionnaire, to undertake a pre-course task and to submit a sample of unedited work for their trainer to evaluate.

By analysing their work prior to the session the trainer can determine how best to approach each session and the key areas of focus required in each programme. Before the formal launch of these writing skills programmes to the entire organisation, pilot sessions were run and observed by Communicaid and the FCO. This enabled the team to identify areas of enhancement and improvements that could be implemented before the general roll out took place. The pilots also ensured that the programme was completely aligned with the FCO requirements.

A key element of Communicaid’s writing training with the FCO is the one-to-one coaching offered to all delegates after attending either of the group training programmes. The written work provided by delegates prior to and during the course enables the trainer to identify how much further coaching and development is required. Individual coaching allows delegates to focus on their own documents in progress and to obtain feedback on areas of their writing needing further development.

Catherine Dohou, a delegate who attended the training programme explains the benefits she has gained from attending the programme: “I found the Effective Writing course beneficial because it allowed me to learn how to plan my drafting, and how to develop a clear, concise and accurate writing style. Only a few days after the course, my line manager congratulated me on the improvements I had made.

"I did appreciate the coaching as it was an opportunity to give feedback on how we managed to practise what we learned. Most importantly, I think that I realised that writing is first of all a fantastic means of communication to express ideas and pass information rather than a means to hide oneself behind bureaucracy. Jargon and pompous phrases make the public look at our organisation as boring, old fashioned, over-serious and unattractive. This course is a huge contribution to changing our organisation's image.”

The monthly writing courses available to FCO employees are continuously fully booked. The popularity of the courses can also be attributed in no small way to the FCO’s line managers who recognise that where accuracy in written communication has increased, so has delegate confidence.

The fact is that due to changes in the school curriculum and the advance of word processing tools over the last 20 years, the ability to write clearly, concisely and correctly is now a rare skill. There is a certain irony that the advent of email and text messaging, two advances in technology designed to improve written communication, have in fact been instrumental in reducing the standard of written work.

However, as channels of communication are that much faster, written communication needs to be more, not less precise. That written work is still king in terms of communicating in business is unarguable. Every member of staff must be equipped with the necessary tools and techniques to produce professional written communication. Whether they are writing emails, letters, proposals or reports, their communication must be impeccable. By achieving these high standards everyone is contributing towards their organisation’s success and bringing real meaning to the phrase – the pen is mightier than the sword.

About the author: Declan Mulkeen is marketing director of Communicaid, a culture and communication skills consultancy.


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