Interview with Fiona Talbot, author of the Better Business English series
Why are you so passionate about helping people succeed in their business writing?
Fiona Talbot: Let’s face it: few businesses can exist without staff having to write something along the way. E-writing - whether as e-mail, social media posts or instant messaging – forms a dominant part of the business cycle in the digital age, rapidly eclipsing face to face or voice to voice communication.
Business writing can be the lifeblood of an organisation’s success. It’s no soft option these days. In fact, I’ve always thought the label ‘soft skill’ misleading because individuals and organisations that ignore the importance of effective communication, ignore it at their peril! I see that there’s very little workplace guidance around despite the fact that people are thirsty for advice and eager to develop their careers. That’s what has driven me to help my readers succeed.
All four of my books are packed with the fascinating findings I’ve gleaned from my consultancy over many years. For example, if messages aren’t understood, they won’t work. If the tone is wrong, messages can irritate. If they lack impact, they won’t get noticed.
I’m so pleased to be able to pass on my expertise as a trusted adviser both to managers wanting to brush up their skills in writing for results and newer entrants to the workplace who realise they are enhancing their employability skills by writing clearly and professionally.
All the books in the series refer to writing as part of the business cycle. Can you explain what you mean by that?
FT: Well, the first stage starts even before any of us even start work. You probably apply in writing online - or by resume/CV and covering letter or perhaps via social media channels. Or maybe you’ll write your business plan or funding application if you’re setting up your own company. The second stage: you make your mark by writing with the right impact. Stage three: you reach the top by developing strategies and relationships that you almost always have to cascade in writing. And the higher up you go, the more you’ll be noticing people’s writing – and the more they’ll be reacting to yours!
Do you think some employers have been caught off guard? Previously they hired more on the strength of good speaking skills...
FT: Yes, you are so right! Great speaking skills these are extremely useful but, increasingly, face to face or voice to voice communication is being ditched for social media or instant messaging. These form ‘the new conversation’ that companies need to be part of. Fascinatingly, the conversation is in writing!
It needs a new, highly valued skillset to write to engage and retain interest. It’s an essential talent to know how to hone language to the target sector/channel. It really aids employability too.
And when it comes to more traditional writing, such as reports or presentation slides, people often used to be able to rely on their speaking skills, to explain their writing to an audience. But here’s an interesting fact: however great someone’s spoken presentation, have you ever stopped to think about how their slides or other handouts can be forwarded to others - including key influencers who weren’t there? Judgements may be made in their absence. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s human nature to focus attention on that unfortunate typo or perhaps that unsupported claim that’s there in black and white.
Great business writing works for you even when you are not there to explain it. Your words say what you mean them to say, clearly and professionally. It makes rather than breaks the buying or buy-in decision!
Can companies really define great business writing? Surely it’s got to be different for each company?
Let me answer the second point first. You’re right: one size will not fit all. The English you use will have to be tailored to your readers. It’s a key point. To succeed you need to write the words that your readers want and need to see. It may sound obvious but companies so often don’t do it!
So my tip is: see things from readers’ perspectives before you write. Whether you’re writing for an internal or external readership, for the UK or international market, identify the sub-set of English you’ll need to use.
Once this is done, the answer to your first question is in place. This becomes the stage where you can define what great business writing is all about. It’s about writing plain, concise messages that align with your business ethos and goals - and that people understand, engage with and respond to, in the way you want. Results matter in business.
Who will most benefit from How To Write Effective Business English?
Employees of every type and size of organisation… directors, middle managers to more junior staff: they all need to write. It’s not just private businesses or entrepreneurs who need to communicate well. It matters just as much in the public sector too. To get on, people need to write well – which may mean writing that’s mistake-free in punctuation and grammar terms, or may mean identifying key messages effectively. It can be critically important in fields such as health, aviation and so on and will affect the bottom line when it comes to commercial messages.
Then, as far as writing business e-mail, websites, blogs, Facebook or Twitter posts and so on is concerned, people need to understand all of these constitute corporate communication. All must reflect organisation values and it must have exactly the right tone for the target audience.
You might be surprised how many written messages unknowingly offend!
The good news is that the writing system shown in each book works for every writing task. The underlying principles are the same. For example, when writing for a global audience you need to know when to write global or ‘glocal’ English: that is, language that’s sprinkled with the local splash of colour / color! Culture and nationality both have an effect on style and acceptability. This can be something that multicultural teams have to work on even in the home market, let alone on a global scale, to avoid unintended misunderstanding or even offence.
If you continuously engage your readers’ attention, keep them informed at every stage (with concise, correct and current messages) and keep them feeling good about you, you simply and effectively enhance your success in keeping them in the loop and able to respond the way you want them to.
I think readers can see why I’m so clearly passionate about helping people succeed in their business writing? It’s an art and a science combined - and thank you for your support in publishing the series. It’s wonderful how each book in The Better Business English series is recommended reading not just for individuals but also in so many workplaces and business schools and government agencies across the globe.