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Language is a Power Tool

As a writer immersed in language and communication I sometimes forget I’m in a speciality area more accessible to some than others. When I came across a Conference Board of Canada report showing only 21 per cent of Canadian adults have high literacy skills, however, I had to take note. The January, 2010, report analyzed information collected earlier this decade as part of an extensive comparative global study of literacy skills in adults aged 16 to 65.

High literacy skills mean an individual can integrate several sources of information and/or solve fairly complex problems; the Conference Board asserts a country’s economic potential is strongly correlated with its literacy levels.

Writing is a foundational skill businesses need to meet internal communication goals such as:

  • ensuring management priorities are clearly understood and supported;
  • effectively explaining company policies and procedures and eliciting compliance thereto;
  • analyzing and resolving problems as they arise; and
  • motivating employees to work as a team to support company objectives.

Poor writing means employees may not understand what they’re supposed to do, or they may not want to comply. Company performance is ultimately compromised.

External communication is important, too. Quality writing helps businesses:

  • explain who they are, what they provide and why they’re different from their competition;
  • motivate people to buy from them;
  • maintain successful business relationships with suppliers;
  • generate respect within their peer group; and
  • show regulatory boards and government organizations that they are in full compliance with the law

Confuse people at any stage and the bottom line will suffer.

A discussion group I hosted last year on LinkedInr underlined how frustrating this problem is for businesspeople: even a university degree is no guarantee of writing competency and many managers are appalled at the shoddy quality of writing among employees whose best efforts are needed for a company’s success. Some businesspeople feel it’s not a university’s job to train people to write adequately – this should be taught by public and high school teachers.

Is this a problem?

The world is full of countries looking for a competitive edge right now and although we can’t snap our fingers and instantly imbue every employee in the nation with great grammar and beautiful syntax, here are my grassroots suggestions for nudging us towards a solution:

  1. Parents should buy their kids an elementary school language skills work book and oversee at least half an hour a week of routine language drills; I suggest the young people progress through different levels of the same series of books until it seems easy.
  2. If you’re not sure about your own literacy skills, do it for yourself first.
  3. If you want to be more competitive in the workplace, go to your local community college and sign up for (and attend) a basic writing skills class.
  4. If you own a business, try (somehow!) to fit writing skills enhancement into your own professional development program – and consider hiring a writing coach or trainer for employees. We’re each on our own continuum: even with nearly 30 years of career writing experience I work with an editor to improve my novel writing skills.
  5. Read!

At its best, language is a power tool and we’re all operators. Get good at the operational end and there’s no telling what we can build!

What do you think about literacy skills and productivity? Leave a comment here or feel free to drop me a line at


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