Why good writing still matters in the digital age

Senior Consultant Cathy McPhail on making every word count with prospective clients, employers and other business contacts

Today’s small business climate demands that many first meetings take place virtually. You might have experienced it yourself; travel was too pricey, the meeting was scheduled last minute and hey, Skype is free. We have reached a point where it’s even possible to manage entire projects and relationships remotely. 

This new chapter in professional communication has opened up questions around the importance of the first impression. Salespeople have long understood that the way you are perceived has an effect on your credibility and your ability to influence others’ decisions. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, included ‘ethos’ (‘showing moral character’) as one of the three elements of persuasion. But good eye contact and a firm handshake don’t really apply on screen or over the phone.

Perhaps we’re exaggerating a little. After all, it’s unlikely that you will land a new client or business partner by electronic or digital means and then carry out a contract without even having looked one another in the face. Still, there is potential to get much further down the path than you would have 15 years ago without actually meeting.

So is there a replacement for the first impression? Well, my answer may surprise you, but only because it isn’t anything particularly new. I believe that what we write is one of the biggest determinants of how we come across professionally, whether it’s to clients, potential employers or a new business partner. 

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group notes in his book Losing My Virginity, How I’ve Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way, “In the same way that I tend to make up my mind about people within thirty seconds of meeting them, I also make up my mind about whether a business proposal excites me within about thirty seconds of looking at it. I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.”

Your present thought process might sound something like this: “But my writing is fine. I always read things twice and, while I might not be a wordsmith, I get the job done!” A 2012 U.S. survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP indicates otherwise, finding that 45% of employers planned to increase staff training programs to improve grammar and other skills. If you need further convincing on the need for better writing in offices, take a look at this article from Melissa Donovan of WritingForward.com.

Perhaps you think an extra apostrophe or a misplaced comma doesn’t have much of an effect. A recent LinkedIn study by Grammarly found that professionals who had fewer grammar errors in their profiles achieved higher professional positions than those who made more grammar mistakes. The study also showed that those with fewer errors had racked up more promotions over 10 years. And to cite a slightly extreme example of how poor spelling and grammar can impact one’s job prospects, Kyle Wiens, owner of iFixit.com and Dozuki, wrote a 2012 blog post for the Harvard Business Review in which he explains why he refuses to hire people with bad grammar. “Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence.”

No one (except maybe Wiens) is saying you are dumb if your linguistic abilities aren’t up to snuff. We all have our gifts and our shortcomings. But if you aren’t taking the extra step of having someone who is a solid writer take a look at your final draft before it goes out the door, you might have a problem.

A seamstress friend once told me it is amazing what good ironing can do. What ironing is to clothes, quality control is to writing and report preparation. If you have someone in your office who has the ability and time to look over your written work, wonderful. If not, take a look online for local copywriters and editors who you can hire on a contract or per-project basis to efficiently handle this aspect of your projects.

In the meantime, here are some great resources to remind you of some of those nitpicky little rules that will keep the receiving end from cringing, or worse!