[In this essay, Margaret hits hard on an issue that all of us in staffing recognize intrinsically: 1) great communicators win, and 2) in the internet era it’s written communication that gives the best bang for the buck. Enjoy. –Gregg]
There was a time when running a staffing firm meant hours spent on the phone or in meetings, learning about clients’ requirements and presenting candidates. Today, good conversational skills are still important – but writing is just as crucial.
To make email and other written communication work for you, it’s crucial to polish your business writing skills. Staffing professionals write to present candidates – which can mean they’re corresponding with high-level clients.
“Let’s say we’re transmitting the resume of a manager,” Gervasini said. “We’re now talking probably to a partner of a CPA firm. The presentation of that resume in the email has to be professional.”
Email isn’t the only place where writing skills are critical. Staffing firms that use Facebook, Twitter or other social media to reach candidates and clients need someone to write their posts.
For staffing professionals looking for a job, a writing test or sample may be required as part of the recruiting process. (And note that even if you’re filling out an online form as part of a job application, your writing is likely being evaluated, especially when you answer open-ended questions.)
Finally, staffing professionals must learn to edit and evaluate others’ writing. It’s often necessary to tweak or correct candidates’ resumes before sending them. In some cases, assessing a candidate’s writing can help you decide whether to send the resume on at all.
How to Win Over Your Audience
To get business writing right, the first key is to focus on your audience. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think about what that reader would like to learn from your letter.
Many business professionals “write about themselves instead of about the customer,” said Mike Consol, a corporate communications coach in the San Francisco area. “There’s no awareness of the audience.”
Knowing your audience will help you decide how formal or casual the writing can be – and what words you use. Depending on the reader, for example, you may have to explain industry terms.
And some readers will prefer a more formal style than others. Corresponding with someone at a social media company may require casual writing style, Gervasini said, but if you’re writing to a large international firm, more formality is likely better.
However, too much formality can lead to writing that’s difficult to understand. And you need to use your writing to make connections – for example, with potential candidates.
“You have to be friendly and cheerful-sounding in your messages, almost chatty, so that they start connecting with you and want to work with you,” Cox said. “Sometimes I sound too formal and too legal when I write.” In those cases, she revises to make the tone appropriate for her audience.
It is, of course, possible to go too far with the casual tone – and again, it’s critical to understand your audience.
“It’s pretty easy to become lax and use slang that you shouldn’t use in business communications,” Cox said.
Some people say overly casual business writing happens because they’re used to texting in their personal lives. But “those are what I call excuses,” Gervasini said. “These people are bright, they’re college educated, they know the difference between a man and a woman or a child and an adult. They certainly would know the difference between what’s casual and professional.”
The key is to strike the right balance: Don’t write so causally that you come across as unprofessional, but don’t use such a formal and stilted style that your writing has no personality and is difficult to understand.
“Good writing is conversational writing,” Consol said. “There are times when formal copy is the right approach to take, but there’s never an excuse to use terminology that leaves people saying, ‘What does that mean?’”
Good Habits Make for Good Business
Once you understand your audience well enough to get the right tone and use the right amount of explanation, it’s important to avoid other common business writing mistakes:
Time crunch. Sometimes writing in a hurry is unavoidable. But the best writing is revised – often several times.
“Unless you are the Mozart of your category, you’re going to write lousy first drafts,” Consol said. “Write the lousy first draft. Then you rewrite it, then you rewrite it, then you go again.”
Cox said she saves her business communications as drafts, then edits them later before sending. “Sometimes it’s two or three times before I actually send it off,” she said.
If your current writing process does not incorporate time to revise, try to speed up other parts of your writing. For example, if you often send candidates directions to your office and their interview times, you could create a template that allows you fill in just the details each time, giving you more time to spend on your more complex communications.
Grammar mistakes. Business letters and emails, as well as PowerPoint presentations and other written documents, are not as casual as text messages.
“If I’m the 49-year-old guy in HR and I get an email and you blow your grammar, I’m still old school – it’s going to annoy me,” said Jeff Skrentny, owner of Chicago-based Jefferson Group Search and Jefferson Group Consulting, which provides training in staffing and search.
Spelling mistakes. Even causal email messages should be spell checked. “You whip off an email like it’s coming out of your mouth and don’t think about spell checking,” Cox said.
In addition to running the spell checker, check the names of the people you write to or mention. Cox once saw a candidate eliminated from consideration because she sent a thank-you note after the interview with the name of her interviewer misspelled.
“It’s right there on the website,” Cox said. “They were like, ‘Why would we hire this person?’”
Lack of organization. There are different ways to organize business writing depending on the content and the goal. But in general, it’s good to get to the point near the beginning. Bullet points can help make the writing easy to read quickly, which is what most busy readers want.
Consol suggests starting with the main point, then filling in the reasons that back it up. If your main point includes a lot of subpoints – five reasons your staffing firm’s IT system needs replacing, for example – it’s a good idea to list all five points near the beginning of the document, then get to the details.
“Give them the road map right at the top,” Consol said.
All of these tips apply when you’re editing others’ writing as well, whether it’s a candidate’s resume or a co-worker’s presentation. And when you’re spending time fixing the mistakes in something someone else has sent you, consider the impression they’re making.
“I do review resumes with a fine-tooth comb, but you almost hate to submit somebody who has mistakes in their resume,” said Cox. “That’s the first thing that they send to you – it should be absolutely perfect.”
This is true of the writing you send, as well.
“Writing is a huge part of the staffing world,” Gervasini said. “It’s you’re signature, it’s who you are and how you come across. Your performance is right there in your letter. A lot of people don’t realize that.”