From one student who boasted of having “severed” customers on a résumé, to the many more who insist on referring to managers as “mangers,” the English language can be a struggle for some business students.
“I’ve been collecting student bloopers for a number of years,” one business professor says.
“It makes hours of grading worthwhile,” admits another.
We asked business professors for examples of the most common typos, bloopers, clichés, jargon, superfluous phrases and just plain bad writing they’ve come across as well as some tips for better writing. Here’s what they had to say.
By all means use a spell checker but keep in mind that many typos will go unnoticed by your computer. That’s why business students have a propensity to type “manger” when they mean “manager.” Valerie Creelman, associate dean and communications professor at St. Mary’s University’s Sobey School of Business, remembers one student who boasted on a résumé of having “severed” customers. A spell checker won’t necessarily recognize these as typos so “proofread, proofread, proofread,” she advises.
For many students, this lesson really hits home when applying for a job, adds Martha McIntyre, manager of communications requirements, of the Queen’s University commerce program. She recalls one student who had written an exceptional cover letter but failed to land a job interview because she had misspelled the company’s name.
Here’s an example that Debi Andrus, marketing professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, came across from a student in her sales management course: “Making the employees part of the meetings by asking for their comments and suggestions, increasing morality,” he or she wrote.
“I think they might have meant morale,” Dr. Andrus clarifies.
Avoid clichés and jargon
All disciplines have their own jargon and overused phrases, but the business field seems particularly rife with these. Here are some that professors say should be forever banished: “win-win; going forward; drill down; value add; stakeholder; buy-in; pushback; take-away; benchmark; value proposition; elevator pitch; and best practices.”
Herb MacKenzie, chair of marketing, international business and strategy at Brock University’s faculty of business, would like to add “strategic” to the list because students often use it without explaining what they mean. “It’s one of those words they like to pepper in because they think it sounds good,” he says.
Ditch the text speak
Acronyms such as LOL, BRB and other text-friendly terms are fine when communicating with friends but they have no place in e-mails to professors and prospective employers or in formal writing assignments, Ms. McIntyre says.
A little formality wouldn’t kill you
In the same vein, don’t begin an e-mail with “Hey” unless the recipient is a close friend, she adds. Same goes for “later.”
Be clear and concise
Here’s where even conscientious writers tend to get tripped up, says Dr. Creelman of St. Mary’s, because they are used to writing in an academic style more common to essays. “Business writing is different,” she says. “It has this laser-like accuracy to it.” So put down the thesaurus and avoid using overly long and complex sentences, she advises. And get to the point quickly. This will make your writing more “vivid and energetic” and will motivate readers to keep reading.
Brevity, yes, but not to the point of rudeness
Don’t be overly blunt or terse. This is especially true when writing e-mails. “E-mail can communicate a completely different mood than the one you want to communicate,” observes Harold Simpkins, marketing professor at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. So avoid one- or two-word replies. This is good advice for everyone but especially so in business where a poorly written message can damage an important relationship, he warns.
Avoid vague and imprecise terms such as “large spending power” or “heavy start-up costs,” advises Dr. Andrus, of the Haskayne School. “‘A lot’ will not tell a decision-maker anything,” she says. “In business, we need to know the size of the market, market share percentages and specific profit margins.”
Omit extraneous and outdated expressions
There’s a long list of these, from “in my opinion” to “as per your request” and “the aforementioned.”
Make fewer points in your PowerPoint. PowerPoint has become an integral part of business presentations. When preparing a slide deck, avoid putting several points on a single slide. Your audience will read the information and will stop listening to you, Concordia’s Harold Simpkins notes
Read it out loud
When you’re finished, read your work aloud before turning it in, advises Brock University’s Dr. MacKenzie. If you stumble, you could have a punctuation problem.
Special to The Globe and Mail