The Millennial Generation appears to have lost the art of writing and oral communication. The college student, the entry-level worker, the global workforce – all just don’t communicate the way employers need. Why? Too much reliance on texting and internet slang, even the problems of English as a second language have caused this dilemma, and traditional education systems don’t seem to be solving the problem.
Writing and oral communication skills are two of the most desired competencies employers seek when hiring new workers, but many employers have to train their employees for improved writing and presentation skills. In fact, one pharmaceutical organization even needed to mandate business communication courses for entry-level workers. Young college graduates, even Ph.D. scientists, need to learn how to get their points across properly within a corporate environment. Few universities measure their graduates on their speaking and writing abilities, and judging from results, too few offer effective courses in workplace communication.
But the Millennial Generation does have its own way of communicating – texting, internet slang, even short YouTube videos. Can we build on these new communication styles, while bridging the gap between this new style of communication and the more formal skills that older generations expect? Or, can Baby Boomers and Generation Y workers learn some of the new ways to communicate?
We can borrow an approach from Madison Avenue to help bridge the gap and improve communication between all working generations. These ideas can help integrate some of the new technology and skills with what has been the considered the gold standard in business communication. The first and most important is to know your audience, both their minds and their hearts.
How many times have we heard the customer is always right? Witness the sixties: when many Baby Boomers rebelled against mass market consumerism, Madison Avenue listened to this generation, and sold them products that better expressed their new lifestyle. Did this customer-is-always-right mantra lead to the ‘Me’ generation of the seventies? Perhaps, but one thing’s for sure: it worked. The consumer society exploded. This approach works for our incoming workforce too.
When we try to communicate, the audience is the customer, and, as such, they’re always right. Most of us say we’re perfectly aware of that. But if so, why do we seem to throw the idea right out of the window when we start to speak? Maybe it’s just that we’re so nervous that we’d rather talk about anything that makes us more comfortable – what we had for breakfast, or what our kids did, or what a hassle security was at the airport. We say we know it’s all about the audience – what they want to know, what’s in it for them, what they expect of the speaker – but when we open our mouths at the podium, we just seem to forget. So communicators need to get an advertiser’s religion here.
Before even sitting down to write, communicators need to ask – who will be in the audience, and what’s troubling their minds and hurting their hearts? We need to put the audience’s needs and desires at the center of all that they do by asking these key questions:
a) Who are they, and how many of them will see, hear or read the communication? Advertisers spend lots of time and money researching who’s watching, reading, and listening. Communicators may not have an advertisers’ bible like the Nielsen ratings, but when a communication is crucial, they need to find out who’s on the other side of the dais.
b) What’s their state of mind? Communicators should be asking why people are in the audience. Are they there because they have to be? Did they pay to get in? Attention varies so broadly: advertisers know that a Super Bowl commercial is likely to have more attention than one appearing on the late-night news. That means we’ve got to make sure that we convey our message differently to different audiences.
c) What moves them? Human beings are complex creatures, and usually their behaviors are triggered by emotions. We may tell ourselves that logic drives what we do, but more often it’s our hearts that lead the way.
Advertisers know that the product won’t sell and the brand won’t be built unless the customer’s need (or perceived need) is at the center of their work. Communicators also must understand that and make sure it informs their every step.
And, how does this relate to workplace readiness? We need to expand business communication training to build on the communication styles of entering workers, and bridge the gap to what’s expected in the workplace. Emphasizing the importance of knowing the audience is a good place to start.
Colleges, especially the business curricula, should increasingly include courses involving communicating in the contemporary workplace, based on the way we communicate today, and emphasize tools from diverse disciplines, such as advertising. The school that offers a fluency guarantee, like what is done with TOEFL for international students, would even have an edge in placing their graduates in jobs.
And our workplaces have to assume that nearly all entering workers will need some kind of communication training. Only an exceptionally-trained worker from this new generation is likely to be able to bypass a core session in communication.
Lastly, and most importantly, we need to revise our expectations of what makes good and effective communication. For example, texting can often be effective in communicating ideas. Internet slang is understood by many. If you’ve ever tried to meet a friend in a crowded city, texting does work to help communicate exactly where you are.
For those of us who reject this type of messaging slang as being inappropriate, we need to rethink our standards. One of the strongest features of the English language is that it constantly grows and adopts new words.
David Purdy, Professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, contributed to the thinking in this blog.
If you’re interested in brushing up on your communication and writing skills, check out a few of our resources below: