ARE you putting enough thought into the message you are about to send into the digisphere? Digital tools are doing more than just changing the way we write, they are changing the way we think.

The digital age is all about living in the moment: just as we have grown to expect instant information from news agencies, we exchange e-mails at work in rapid-fire succession and a growing number of our personal and professional exchanges happen on social media, in full view of colleagues and professional acquaintances.

In this context, the temptation to hit “send” first and ask questions later is becoming an increasingly serious problem. As the digital world transforms the way we share information, it is more important than ever to nurture our writing skills at the office. New technologies are not necessarily the enemy of thoughtfulness.

 

The power of the written word

Writing is one of the main ways we communicate at work — but it’s important for other reasons, too.

First and foremost, writing is an integral part of the thought process — one must first write down an idea to truly explore it in its entirety. Of course, an idea might grow through oral communication — through a conversation around the water cooler for example — but innovation always involves interplay between the written and the oral.

An idea needs to be put down to be developed, built upon and nuanced. If it does not take shape in the written form, an idea is just words floating around without consequence.

Written communications are also important in that they let us leave a trace. Whether you write with pen and paper, or on your computer or even on your phone, writing allows you to leave your mark, justify your thoughts and tailor your argument to your perceived audience.

The significance of writing has been thousands of years in the making. Since ancient Mesopotamia, writing has been intrinsically linked to society’s ability to organise, record history, share knowledge and fix meanings. Without writing, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

 

The trouble with tech

Has new technology limited our ability to express ourselves through well-developed writing? “Death by PowerPoint” has become an observed reality in both professional organisations and in the classroom, described as a situation where otherwise-capable students and staff are unable to write and develop an argument.

Largely because of the speed of communication, the ease with which we can type something and send it to someone, we can easily forget to think first. Part of the reason is technical — the way these devices are designed — but some of it has to do with practices — the way people are using these devices.

On the one hand, your iPhone makes it easier than ever to send an e-mail while on the go or post a comment on Twitter. On the other hand, these same devices are letting work cut into our private time and we have less time to reflect and to think before hitting “Send”.

There is an expectation now that people should react to things right away. Managers need to understand that slow is sometimes better: you need to draft an e-mail, put it away and then look at it later to reformulate what you said.

Do new technologies also add value to the writing experience?

My research with my co-author, Professor Anne-Laure Fayard of the Department of Technology Management and Innovation at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, for the book The Power Of Writing In Organisations: From Letters To Online Interactions, shows that feelings about new communication technologies were two-fold.

While many felt negatively about being overwhelmed with e-mails and the pressure to reply instantaneously to their senders, these feelings could not annihilate the positive experiences.

These new tools give us the ability to write articles and design complex research projects with others while rarely meeting or speaking; make us members of enthusiastic online communities and let us keep in touch with friends and family while living abroad. You can be very thoughtful in writing a tweet. You can write a poem on a cellphone — and people do.

 

Hone your writing skills

How should a company foster better writing skills among employees?

Many professionals feel they need to work on their written communication skills because, at the end of the day, it is written presentations and exchanges that are really going to convince a client that they have a strong product.

Written documents are also the traces you leave behind after your business with a client has been concluded. What you write shows that you have deep knowledge of a subject, an industry or a problem. And beyond this, documents that incorporate points your client made prove that you have been listening.

For our book, Prof Fayard and I interviewed many people regarding their current practices. Writing courses were common in the more technical domains: architects, for example, might be able to design a building, but they also need to be able to write a complex, well-argued and nuanced project proposal.

In businesses around the world, we tend to adopt an Anglo-Saxon writing style: clear, straightforward and unadorned compositions. The reason this style has been adopted is because people are busy and they need to know the most important point of a document right away. Many business schools, including Essec, now offer written communication courses to meet those expectations.

Article by Anca Metiu, Professor of Management, Essec Business School. She is the co-author of the book, The Power of Writing In Organisations: From Letters To Online Interactions. For more information, visit www.essec.edu/discover-essec/essec-asia-pacific.html