It’s a source of amazement and some amusement that many articulate people are reduced to blubbering incompetents when required to put their thoughts down in a written form.
Some people are intimidated by a blank piece of paper or computer screen. Let’s examine why this feeling of panic overtakes individuals who otherwise appear to be competent and confident.
First, we have the test syndrome. Some people panic when taking examinations. All they have is that blank sheet of paper and the material inside their head. Now they must translate that information onto paper. Their “test score” depends on what is scratched on that threatening blank sheet.
A second reason people may not feel confident about using their writing skills is that they do not read much themselves. They get through what they consider required reading for work, but they don’t read for pleasure or form personal or professional development. Instead, they watch too much television or spend a lot of time online, both of which are more passive than reading. You won’t improve your writing skills much by watching television or web surfing. You learn about good writing by reading. Television and the Internet are not to be blamed for all the social ills attributed to them, but both have lessened the time many people spend reading, which in turn has had an adverse effect on their writing skills. For the most part, e-mail and text messaging have not helped. Much of the writing in those modalities is choppy and filled with incomplete sentences and abbreviations. That style of writing works fine in those settings but is not appropriate for written business communications.
Another reason people panic when they have to write is that they spell poorly and don’t want to appear foolish by demonstrating it. Spell check solves this problem in many settings, but not when people have to write ideas or talking points on big sheets of paper in front of others, or even jot down a written note to someone. This avoidance behavior of having to spell without assistance is common.
In addition, because people don’t exercise their writing skills much today—except when they are sending e-mails and text messages—they are intimidated when they need to write a lengthy document or even send someone a handwritten letter. An analogy to public speaking might make the point. If you seldom give a speech in public, you are probably intimidated by the situation. And when you are intimidated, you are not relaxed; you are uptight and nervous. Your manner of speaking is stiff and uncomfortable. You communicate your apprehension to the audience; people may even feel uncomfortable for you. Your manner destroys their confidence in you and in the truth or wisdom of the message you are trying to deliver.
The same thing happens with written communication. If you are intimidated by the situation, your writing will be stiff and stilted. Under such circumstances, you may try to cover the situation by writing in a more formal manner, using words you would never use in conversation with a friend.
Books and courses will tell you how to write business letters and inter-office memos. They can be a big help. If writing is a challenge for you or if you’d just like to do it better, definitely seek out training or books to assist you. You are much more likely to be successful and continue to advance in your career if you express your thoughts well and persuasively in writing.
Mental Imagery Will Help Your Writing Skills
One of the best methods for improving your writing skills is to use mental imagery. Instead of being intimidated by the blank piece of paper or screen, get a mental image of the person you are writing to. See that person in your mind. You might even go so far as to imagine the person seated in an easy chair at the office drinking a cup of coffee and reading your note. Or you could visualize yourself sitting in a coffee shop telling the person the message you want to convey.
Imagine that you are having a conversation with the person in a friendly environment. Now speak. Use words you’d use in conversation. If you don’t use four-syllable words in your conversations, don’t use them in your written communication. Psychologists tell us that people who use certain words, these fancy types of words, only when they want to impress others in their writing are actually showing signs of having an inferiority complex. Even if you do feel uncomfortable with your writing, don’t advertise it—keep it to yourself.
When conjuring up the mental picture of the person you’re writing to, always imagine a friendly face. Even if you are, for example, sending an email to someone you can’t stand, imagine that you’re writing to a friend. Never conjure up hostile feelings because they may come through in your writing. Imagining a friendly face will bring a friendly, warm tone to your communication.
Now let’s take a broader situation: sending an e-mail to all the people in your department or division. You don’t want to imagine forty-five people sitting in an auditorium waiting for you to speak. That is too formal a situation, and unless you’re an outstanding and relaxed public speaker, the image is going to make your writing formal and uptight.
Instead, get a mental picture of two or three of the friendliest employees you have reporting to you. Imagine that you are on a coffee break or lunch break with them. Now say to them what you have to say. That is what you write. If you’re writing to fellow managers in other departments, you can use similar mental images.
Now let’s assume you have to write an update report to the president of the company, and let’s assume she is a bit unapproachable and intimidating. Getting a mental image of the president is only going to make the situation worse. Think instead of someone who does not intimidate you. Imagine that person as the president. Now write the report. The tone will be altogether different.
Writing informally does not mean using incomplete sentences or faulty grammar. Some e-mails sent by educated business people would make their eighth-grade English teachers hide in shame. Many companies offer in-house training courses specifically on how to improve your writing skills improvement. When writing an e-mail, you need to make certain your grammar and spelling are correct.
Keep in mind that not only does an e-mail represent you to others, but it is also likely to be permanently archived. E-mails can be forwarded countless times. Something poorly stated can find its way to colleagues you have never met. You do not want to start at a deficit in their minds when you meet them because they have read a poorly written e-mail you sent. On the positive side, a well-written e-mail speaks well of you and burnishes your reputation for being thoughtful and persuasive.
If you are uncomfortable about your use of grammar or spelling in written Communications, learn the basics. They are not that difficult and are certainly not cumbersome. Reading an inexpensive book on grammar and spelling or taking a course at a local college or high school will help you in that regard. Don’t rely on an assistant or colleague to backstop you in this area. That is the easy way out and may cause you to put off achieving competence in these important writing skills.
There is an additional reason you should be sure that your grammar and spelling are correct in your writing. If they aren’t, there’s a chance that they’re also incorrect in your formal speaking and even in informal conversations. If that is the case, it will have an adverse impact on future success and promotion possibilities.
So do your best to write and speak the language correctly, give it the dignity it deserves, and represent yourself well. Above all, remember—write to that friendly mental image.