The rules for business writing have evolved over time. As I face a mixed-age audience for a training session, I experience a little conflict in making the rules relevant (and important) for millennials.
Millennials cannot be exclusively blamed for our confusion. Language becomes the collateral damage as the new online media distort the norms.
Admittedly, the limited characters on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook captions seem to honor brevity, our hero. But in brevity’s place, depth and substance at times depart.
We are living in glorious times when emojis, GIFs, and LOLs replace the eloquence of well-strung phrases and sentences.
Even I, myself, habitually save time by giving affirmation through likes and hearts. Still, I related to the nostalgia of calligraphers seeking the lost art of writing letters by hand.
As this new media consumption takes up a lot of our waking time, the linguistic changes spill over into the business world where millennials struggle with writing “professionally” and effectively.
The sober tone in the corporate world may seem bland, restrictive, and stiff—in the opinion of the LOLing millennial who thinks in captions with #hashtags.
I cannot pretend to be an expert at bridging the gap, but here, I attempt to marry my old-fashioned thinking with the millennial reality in which I semi-reluctantly find myself living.
In my best effort to help more millennials craft a suitable tone and structure into their business emails, allow me to suggest some quick tips on relatable rules and personal best practices below:
- Courtesy is still king. Urgency does not excuse a person’s failure to address a recipient properly and correctly. Write the names (Dear can be dropped in favor of a Hi or Hello), but do not just type away without acknowledging the person you’re addressing by name.
Never make a request without “Please,” “Kindly,” and deliberately keep yourself from sounding demanding. Be explicit with what is needed, how it is expected to be delivered, and when. Many people don’t get what they want because they either don’t ask nicely and clearly—wasting more time with back-and-forth emails.
- Make your greeting relevant. “Warm Greetings” or “Greetings of Peace, blah, blah, blah” sound too contrived nowadays. A “Good Day” or “How are your doing?” is more dated, and sincere.
- Punctuations please. Keep the !!!!!, ??????, and ?!?!?! in personal chat boxes to your BFFs. These things still do not have any place in business correspondence even if it’s 2017. I see so many people put together words without pause and neglect even ending a sentence with the trusty period.
Its and It’s are two different things. Know when the apostrophe is needed (to contract It is) and when it is not (to show possessive use).
The missing comma must be put back: “Hi, Robin.” Instead of “Hi Robin.” Separate plural ideas with comma even when adding an “and” or an “or,” i.e. “The company has decided to implement the project for Operations, Finance, Sales, and Marketing.” rather than falsely combining Sales and Marketing into one group if you miss to place the comma.
- Begin with a positive and thankful note. Acknowledge the other person for taking time to send you a message. It always helps to make other people, regardless of rank, made to feel important. This builds likability, and it makes communicating a bigger message much easier in the later body of your email.
Yes, Thank You is never out of style.
- Be quick to apologize. Was there a misunderstanding, a delay, a complaint, or any simple issue? Apologize.
Not your fault? If the message was sent to you, choose to apologize instead of assigning blame. It can be said that the ultimate goal of effective communications in business is still to ensure relationships are protected and maintained.
You correct wrong assumptions later with carefully-chosen words.
- Validate other people’s facts, assumptions, and feelings. This can be as simple as, “I understand you’re eager / frustrated / excited, etc.” This empathy helps in developing trust—something that you will need to efficiently collaborate with other people.
- Respond promptly. Even if you do not have the full response to an inquiry or a request, respect the other person by responding ideally within the day (or at most, within two days). Needless to say, keep your promise to deliver the full response when committed.
Don’t develop the nasty habit of having people chase you with follow-up emails.
- Don’t be crass. We may get emails from people who lack the business writing manners to refrain from being abrasive, or who let their emotions overpower their message. Whatever you do, keep it classy. That means words like the F-word, shit, and others can never be said even if provoked. Good to remember that emails can be used as legal documents, so think long before pressing Send.
You may argue, tongue-in-cheek, the modern day inspiration of Steve Jobs’ brand of leadership where he allegedly acted like an “asshole” to people around him. But if you’re not at the level of the brilliant Apple founder, refrain from sarcasm, poor jokes, and fiery anger. Choose words skillfully to veer on the positive (at worst, neutral) spectrum.
- Spell it out please. No, 2 does not take the place of “to” and w does not take the place of “with.” The age of Nokia 5110 is long gone so spelling out correctly is the expectation. Yes, I also mean GTG can go out the window. (Bye!)
The uppercase and lowercase exist for reasons, respect these. While we’re here, please remember “lose the ego” is spelled with only one o.
- Grammar still makes or breaks your credibility, so please don’t be afraid to confirm if your usage is correct. Subject-verb disagreement wreaks mental bloodshed to a reader who knows better. So please, take advantage of Google for grammar checks and do yourself a big favor.
I am tempted to go on and on, but I’ll keep this at a “chewable” length for now.
Remember: your words are powerful and they speak of who you are. Be deliberate and don’t skip the need for basic courtesy.
When you make your message intentionally clear and correct in both form and content, you become effective, at the very least. From there, you can potentially be noticed and become better respected by your peers inside and outside of your office. Most importantly, it will prepare you for the crucial demands of leadership.
Want more tips to improve your business writing? Check out this article from Harvard Business review, learn the commonly-misspelled words by Oxford, and be aware of the most common grammar mistakes by Business Insider.