Writing is the first line of business communications these days. As consumers and potential clients, we learn about businesses first through websites.
When we introduce ourselves to others, we typically do it through E-mail. We connect with friends, colleagues, clients, customers, and prospects through social media pages.
And often entire business relationships are made and managed through written electronic communications between two parties that have never met face to face.
“It sounds funny, but you could get laryngitis at work for a week and still conduct business,” says Sarah Morgan, a communications manager at Merck. “No one would even know you were sick.”
For Morgan, the written word is paramount. Not just because she makes her living there, but because of the sheer pervasiveness of written words on websites, blogs, texts, tweets, and everything else. “Everyone is writing,” she says. “And we judge people based on their writing.”
Morgan will present “Writing for Results: Why Writing Matters” at the New Jersey Communications, Advertising and Marketing Association meeting on Wednesday, October 24, at 6 p.m. at D&R Greenway at 1 Preservation Place. Cost: $30. E-mail email@example.com or visit www.njcama.org.
Morgan grew up in Morris County, and set off to study marketing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The trouble was, “I took microeconomics, which made me profoundly miserable,” she says.
So she switched to English and came across “a fantastic professor” in a communications class, which provided her with her new direction and an answer to the question, “What are you going to do with your life?”
After her first year at FDU, she scored an internship with Johnson & Johnson, which she had planned to brag about. Here she was, a budding communications pro, getting a job at J&J’s corporate offices, where she would no doubt make fantastic contacts.
Trouble was, J&J had other plans — namely its warehouse, where Morgan had to wear boots and gloves and package boxes of medicines. “That,” she says, “was a very educational summer.” As much as she admires her parents — her mother is a home health worker and her father sells goods to the military — she wanted to do something not quite so involved in heavy work.
Next year’s internship, also with J&J, went more like she had at first planned. She stayed with the company through college, doing internal communications, before getting her first paying job (in 2003) with MCS Healthcare Public Relations in Bedminster. She worked there for seven-plus years before joining Merck two years ago.
In her time Morgan has come to understand the importance — the dominance, really — of the written word in business today. And what she tries to combat is the mistaken attitudes people have about what they are typing on keyboards and keypads and sharing with the world.
Now I know my ABCs. There is a mistaken belief that because people are very casual and informal these days, it is all right to be casual and informal with the written communications we send in our work lives. But Morgan reminds that business is still business and the basics still count — proper spelling, good grammar, and a more formal tone than “Yo, what’s up? :).”
“You have to understand the basics,” she says. “The old stuff is still important.”
Her emphasis in that statement regards social media. Young professionals and people just starting out in their careers these days often mistakenly think that just because social media includes the word “social,” that the rules of proper writing don’t apply. We’ve all gotten used to being informal, she says. But it isn’t about being casual with bosses, clients, and prospects. It’s about being professional.
Her own skills, she says, came from Sister Jonathan, her AP English teacher in high school. Sister Jonathan had the class write a 300-word piece every few days, but on the first one, Morgan received the grade of 27. “I couldn’t breathe,” she says. Neither could anyone else in the class, who didn’t do much better. “When the first one of us got an A, we all clapped.”
Getting the point across. Morgan concedes that most people are not writers. Consequently, written pieces from most people take forever to get to the point.
That’s fine if you’re writing novels, but in business, Morgan says, people do not have time to wade through rivers of text just to get to the heart of your point. Her advice: Get to the action step. Whatever you’re writing, and for whomever you write it, state the point early and stick to the message.
Talk to me like I’m five. There is a curious tendency, Morgan says, for people to put on some kind of persona when they write for business. They get mired in minutiae and details and complex explanations that confuse readers. And they often write in lofty language that isn’t really them, she says.
“I always tell people, ‘Explain this to me like I’m your neighbor,’ or ‘Explain this to me like I’m five years old,’” she says. “Talk like a regular person.”
Morgan usually works in compliance issues at Merck, meaning the written things she sees are full of dense, complex language. But in there is the nugget. Ask yourself what is the most salient point of what you’re talking about and build from there in simple-as-possible language.
The world around us. Business today is international, and language differences underscore the point that writing needs to be clear and straightforward. You can speak to an American English-speaking audience in broader, looser terms and not necessarily lose them, Morgan says.
But people from other countries, even those people fluent in English, might not get the subtleties and colloquialisms (much less the humor) you’re going for. “You can’t make them translate twice,” she says.
Protect yourself. Words are forever. Many is the business or politician brought down by careless words printed or sent through E-mail. Morgan cautions that while we tend to think of words as disposable in this fast-paced, oversaturated media environment, nothing is further from the truth.
“The Internet is forever,” she warns. Know what you’re writing, and treat the web with the caution it deserves.
Brand X. Make no mistake, you are your own brand, Morgan says. When you write and communicate with others, for whatever reason, your reputation and your personal brand are always on the line.
Under it all, she says, writing tweets and Facebook postings and LinkedIn updates is no different from talking at a networking mixer. You still have to pay attention to what’s being said and what it is supposed to achieve.
“Always remember, the brand you’re managing is yourself,” she says.