A few weeks ago, I looked appreciatively at the audience in the lecture room. About 15 executives from different fields were gathered in person for the semester’s ‘intensive week’ of the executive MBA programme at a globally ranked business school in Africa. Others joined online.
As was customary, I was scheduled to facilitate workshops on business writing for the executives. As the sessions progressed, we tackled grammar and discussed issues related to writing relevant, persuasive emails. Then we debriefed a writing assignment that I’d graded. I selected a few submissions and the executives made useful suggestions on how the write-ups could be improved.
I always enjoy my interactions with executives undertaking MBA programmes because they bring along their varied work experiences and interesting perspectives to class discussions. They also sharpen my critical reasoning skills. However, to support them in their journey to improving their writing skills, I often challenge them on certain areas of their writing and inevitably give them more work (despite the groans of protest I get given their academic commitments from other MBA modules in their programmes). But I remain firm. I’d be ineffective in my support role if I don’t plant the seeds of discipline or inspire them to do more beyond my sessions to improve their writing chops.
At the end of my session, a soft-spoken female executive, Executive T, approached me. She indicated an interest in beginning a one-on-one coaching programme on business writing. I was pleased because despite periodically declaring I was available for additional support, few routinely sign up for private coaching. Nonetheless, I considered it pertinent to warn Executive T that she must be ready to commit to the work in the three-month programme I intended to enrol her in. She agreed.
One week later, Executive T and I began the private three-month coaching programme on business writing. The first two weeks went well and I was optimistic that she’d see improvements in her writing if she remained committed to the work.
Now over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work one-on-one with executives on coaching programmes for business writing and public speaking. Not all have been successful, and I’ve had two executives who lost steam and didn’t follow through with the time and effort needed to succeed. Those executives who failed to complete the coaching programmes were few. It was a shame they couldn’t continue, and I was concerned they’d fail to sign up for private coaching elsewhere. If they’d asked themselves these three critical questions to determine their preparedness for coaching programmes before approaching me, a lot of stress could have been avoided.
Nonetheless, the positive experiences far outweighed the negatives. And I’ve come to realise that for executive one-on-one business writing coaching programmes to be successful, five steps must be consistently applied.
So as an executive who’s considering registering for a coaching programme to hone your writing chops, below are five steps you must adopt or request:
Step #1: Commit to the time investment
I coach once a week for three months via Zoom. And this schedule is non-negotiable. What is flexible, however, is the day and time of each session. I make it clear to the executive that we must meet virtually every week for the duration of the programme.
If you’re serious about seeing improvements, no matter how small, then your consistency is key to keeping you motivated and open to the tasks ahead.
In my experience, once you miss one session, it takes extra effort to continue the process. Miss two sessions, then motivation plummets and progress stalls.
Therefore, before you sign up for my coaching programmes, I advise you to carefully consider if you could commit to the time investment required. If you’re unsure, I offer some other type of support, but not coaching sessions.
Step #2: Embrace a hybrid coaching-training method
I’m not your typical coach who asks a lot of questions and then guides you to find answers/solutions. But I understand why this format is standard and works well. I also applaud my peers who record great success with this style.
When it comes to business writing coaching, my method is different. Because of my training, facilitation, and lecturing work, my coaching system has inevitably become a hybrid of standard coaching and a training format.
So, I’d ask those questions to understand your background, needs, challenges, and hopes. Then, I’d listen carefully to your suggestions on how you’d wish to proceed. Nevertheless, I will correct/grade your writing inputs, give you feedback on your work, list specific actions you should take, and hold you accountable.
My method leads to light-bulb moments and provides a roadmap you can follow that will be suited to your circumstances.
Each session might initially last one hour, but some intensive stints could go on to three hours per session. You’d get all the necessary insights, advice, action points, and resources that will help you build your capability.
Consider each session like a mini-workshop where the focus is solely on you and growing your confidence to write better.
If you register for professional coaching programmes on business writing, discuss with the experts to see if they could incorporate a training component into the standard coaching arrangement. This system is a game-changer. Trust me on this.
Step #3: Re-acquaint yourself with good grammar and punctuation
I advise executives to refresh their knowledge of grammar and punctuation early in the coaching programme.
A good understanding of grammatical rules (and knowing when to break them to retain the flow and style) is instrumental to writing well. A thorough grasp of punctuation ensures your writing is unambiguous and convincing.
I often declare that good grammar is the solid foundation on which you build your writing skills.
To start, do the following:
A) Consult the Univeristy of Bristol grammar web page and the Purdue Online Writing Lab grammar website
Visit the University of Bristol web page and begin with the ‘punctuation marks’ section. There’re seven punctuation marks listed (including the dreaded semi-colon and often-misused apostrophe), and one common punctuation error to avoid — the comma splice.
Read the information on each punctuation mark, which is written in plain English and devoid of grammatical jargon, and then test your knowledge by doing the exercises to get instant feedback.
I give this task to everyone who enrols in my coaching programmes You can finish that section in less than an hour, or break up the task into manageable study slots of 10 minutes a day.
After the ‘punctuation marks’ section, proceed to ‘common confusions’, and tackle ‘other pitfalls and problems. Thereafter, you could address other topics.
Even after completing the relevant sections, periodically brush up on your knowledge of grammar and punctuation over the three months of the coaching programme.
This free online service is arguably one of the best grammar resources on the web. Use it as often as possible to master key aspects of grammar and punctuation.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
This is another free, educational resource that you should take advantage of. Hop on to the grammar page and get simple, straightforward explanations of different grammar dilemmas. Deciphering the adjective-adverb debacle, using prepositions, knowing the differences between count and noncount nouns, avoiding spelling issues, applying the rules for numbers, etc. — you’d get all the information you need. A bonus is that you can also test your newfound knowledge by doing the exercises and learning from your mistakes.
B) Buy at least one classic and order one modern resource
On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a classic, well past its 30th anniversary. It’s chock-full of practical nuggets for writing effectively. It’s also a must-read for anyone, and executives in particular who’re keen on honing their writing flair. This book is recommended reading material for the management communication module in executive MBA programmes at the business school where I work part-time. Do yourself a favour and keep a copy to refer to time and again.
For a modern resource, the Style Guide For Business and Technical Communication by Stephen Covey is a must-have. This textbook is comprehensive and covers virtually all aspects of grammar, writing, and style. It equips you with the knowledge you need so you can make changes in your writing. I’ve got a trusty, dog-eared copy in my office and can attest that it’s increased my knowledge of good writing and has helped me hone my skills.
Even if you don’t do anything else to update your grammar except use the online web pages mentioned above and read the two recommended writing resources to apply what you learn, you’d still improve your writing skills by at least 40%.
Don’t skip this step.
Step #4: Follow the daily 10-minute reading rule
Actually, in PART III of my business communication bestseller Influence and Thrive, I propose a daily 15-minute reading rule. But so that I don’t overwhelm executives, I start them initially on a daily 10-minute reading schedule. When they’ve mastered this habit, I increase the time slot to 15 minutes, if they can handle the extra time.
But there’s a catch: Executives are required to only read well-written materials across different genres and formats; they must intentionally avoid tabloids or soft-sell novels/magazines like a plague. I suggest what they should read and help them schedule a time to do so a week in advance.
Why is reading great materials important? And what’s the correlation between reading regularly and writing effectively?
Reading is critical to writing well. Furthermore, constantly exposing yourself to good content guarantees four benefits:
- It increases your vocabulary, which flavours your writing.
- It introduces you to different styles, expressions, and nuances, which seep into your writing over time making you more masterful in the craft. (I’ve found this to be true in my work).
- It sharpens your critical reasoning skills and makes you more persuasive.
- It makes you speak better. This bonus is completely unexpected, but one executive who finished my programme attested to this.
So as an executive desirous of tweaking your writing skills, don’t limit yourself to work-related materials and business issues. Delve into adventure, crime, poetry or even kids’ stories. Reclaim the joy of reading that you lost after adolescence, and take note of the magic created on paper (or screens if you’re reading ebooks). Note what works in different genres, what you can use, and what you won’t ever adopt.
Reading is your pathway to developing superior thinking and gaining clarity in your work.
You won’t ever elevate your writing if you don’t read consistently.
Step #5: Embrace the discipline of writing regularly
As obvious as it may sound, you must write regularly to become a better writer.
And don’t consider your work emails and reports as sufficient fodder. Train your brain to recognise and retain good practices by writing at every opportunity you get.
All executives who register for my business writing coaching programmes are obligated to begin a blog. I ask them to choose a blogging schedule: once a week, once in two weeks, or at least once a month. They must blog in addition to all their writing tasks at work. Their blogs become personal projects and they’re free to write on any topic. The length of their articles is unimportant. But the quality of the content must be prioritised.
Therefore, I’m not interested in whether they write articles of 50 words or 1,000 words. What is more important is that they adhere to their blog-writing schedules and edit their articles as though reputable publications (e.g. New York Times, Inc., Business Insider, Fast Company) will pay them for their write-ups.
Blogging consistently for three months (and even after the coaching programme) will strengthen the executives’ skills, hone their persuasiveness, and make them more comfortable writing to different audiences. A bonus is that they might discover a passion for writing and delving deep into a niche, or even monetizing their blogs.
As someone who has been blogging every month for 11+ years, I can confirm that blogging has amplified my writing skills, strengthened my persuasive muscles, and established me as a thought leader (thereby opening me up to speaking gigs and other opportunities). It also made writing my book easier.
Note, however, that you must prepare yourself for the long haul and stay the course.
View the process as a marathon, and not a sprint.
So executives, if like Executive T, you’re considering a business writing coaching programme, consider the five steps shared in this article.
Become your greatest cheerleader and commit to the process of transformation. No one should be more enthusiastic or disciplined than you — not even the coach. It’s your passion and determination that will determine how far you’d go in any programme.
Finally, if this post resonates with you and you’d like a business writing coach to challenge, support, and root for you, then email and let’s have a conversation.
To your success!
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N.B: First image is courtesy of No Longer Here via Pixabay. Second image is courtesy of Alison via Pixabay. Third image is courtesy of Ylanite Koppens via Pixabay. Last image is courtesy of Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.