Why Andrew Bolt is dead wrong about business writing training

A client recently sent me a clip of Andrew Bolt complaining about NSW Transport’s ‘absurd’ $200K investment in business writing training for its staff.

You’ll need to watch the clip, but in a nutshell, Bolt and his guests dismiss the investment as a ‘stuff up’ – and a wasteful box-ticking exercise. 

And, in a strange contradiction, they also blame the education system for not doing its job. (You can’t have it both ways. Is it an unnecessary waste – or a sad necessity?)

I’ve dedicated the last 15 years of my career to raising the standard of business writing in workplaces across Australia. So you won’t be surprised to hear this clip hit a nerve.

Here’s the thing: Bad business writing is indeed a problem. And although I can’t fix the source of that problem (whether it’s the education system or something else), I can certainly address its symptoms. And that’s exactly what I do – by going into workplaces and training everyday businesspeople to write clearly and concisely – every week of the year.

Here’s why business writing training is in such demand in organisations big and small across the country. And why Andrew Bolt’s perspective is so off the mark. 

Schools don’t teach us how to write for business

Mrs McPherson. She was my favourite English teacher – who I was lucky enough to have in both Year 8 and Year 10. 

She taught me how to analyse Shakespeare prose. How to write a nail-biting creative piece. 

And how to ace an exam question about Of Mice and Men, proving I had read, highlighted and memorised every last earmarked corner of the book. 

It’s safe to say that Mrs McPherson did a marvellous job. 

However, it’s also safe to say that, when I entered the corporate world several years later, I had no flamin’ idea how to write a simple business email. 

Because teaching business writing skills is NOT within the remit of our high school English teachers. Should it be? Perhaps. Should it be more firmly embedded in tertiary academic environments too? Definitely. But, from what I understand, it’s not. (It certainly wasn’t covered when I studied business in the 1990s – nor when I became a university lecturer myself in the 2000s.)

Which is precisely where the problem lies: business writing has little in common with academic writing. A reality that very few people recognise. And unless business leaders take steps to help staff bridge that gap, communication in the workplace suffers. 

Long-winded, formal, analytical writing drowning in ‘sophisticated’ vocabulary may have impressed our English teachers and university tutors back in the day. 

But it won’t impress our customers, colleagues and suppliers today.  

So, what will impress them?

Writing that’s clear, concise, reader-focused and accessible.
Writing that gets to the point quickly.
Writing that’s easy to read, understand and act on – from the get go. 

Sadly, that’s a rare treat in the business world. Believe me. 

Bad business writing isn’t just frustrating – it’s expensive 

It’s tempting to dismiss your team’s waffly emails and rambling reports as nothing more than a frustrating – and perhaps unavoidable – aspect of worklife. 

But have you ever thought about the amount of time your senior staff spend editing their team’s emails, briefs, memos and reports, just to get them to an acceptable standard? 

What about the time your team wastes trying to decode each other’s bad writing? 

In his 2016 survey, The State of Business Writing, Josh Bernoff found that people in business spend 6% of total wages trying to understand poorly written material. (That equates to a staggering AUD$586 billion of our national income.)

He also found that 81% of people agree with the statement, ‘Poorly written material wastes my time’. 

What, specifically, are these people’s biggest bugbears? Writing that’s:

  • Too long
  • Poorly organised
  • Unclear
  • Jargon-filled
  • Imprecise

(Hmmmm. I’m looking at you academia!)

There’s no doubt about it. Confusing written communication that sucks up your team’s time kills productivity – and naturally, your bottom-line.

But more than that, it can cause serious damage. Because there’s no better way to compromise your brand integrity than with a sloppy proposal or an email with all the clarity of a Kanye West rant. 

Substandard writing tells customers that your brand is substandard too. And my guess is that’s costing your business way more than you’d like to admit.

Communication is the key to innovation  

Have you ever come across a subject matter expert who could potentially change the world with their brilliance – but struggles when it comes to everyday communication?

I’m sure many people come to mind. (Or perhaps you recognise yourself here?)

And the sad reality is, no matter how amazing they may be, our knowledge and ideas mean nothing if we can’t communicate them. 

In his recent article, When Communication Is At Its Best, So Is Innovation, Forbes’s Chief Innovation Officer Alex Goryachev says: ‘The single most critical element that separates innovation success from failure is communication.’

As we’ve already established, clear, consistent communication is rare in business.

So it’s no wonder so many organisations are stuck, finding it near impossible to innovate and progress.

It’s also baffling that communication is often the last thing leaders invest in. 

‘’They pour money into hardware, software and engineering capabilities, basically anything but communications,’ says Goryachev.

Any leader in any organisation who understands the importance of communication – and funds it properly – creates a genuine competitive edge. 

That’s why, in my books, spending $200K on improving the written communication skills of thousands of our country’s public servants makes good business sense. 

Possibly even a smarter investment than lighting up the opera house for the King’s coronation, hey Mr Bolt?