“I’m a business writer and business writing trainer. Questions, kids?”

OK, that’s what I am … but who understands what it means, especially when you’re a teenager?

Recently I have been doing some (voluntary) work here in Milton Keynes, England, helping secondary/high school kids learn more about the realpolitik  of the business world. We’re very lucky to have two organisations running schemes where business people go into these schools and talk to students: one is ProActive Education, and the other is the charity Worktree.

Teaching high school students about business and business writing

Students need to know that no matter how boring it may seem, correct grammar/spelling/punctuation in job applications and CVs/résumés can make the difference between getting a job … and not getting it.

So what exactly does this entail, and how much do these teenagers know – if anything – about the importance that business writing will have in their future careers?

Here’s how I explain it to them – and as some of them may well look up HTWB, here it is for you guys in black and white. In addition, the following is an explanation adults might like to chew over, too. There’s nothing like bringing ourselves back to basics to help us refresh where we’re going and why.

Why does a small-to-medium sized business need to place so much importance on business writing?

OK. Take a business. It has some great products and/or services. But no-one knows that yet.

The business needs to communicate the fact that it has something worthwhile to offer to its prospective customers (and influencers, potential referrers, etc., but we don’t get into that yet.)

That business might try to shout out “hey, we’ve got some great goodies here, come and buy them.” But of course, given a) how much more savvy buyers – consumers or businesses – are now and b) the amount of noise and competition there is in most marketplaces, that approach is useless.

So, the business needs to communicate a worthwhile message to its audience and that has to be done using words, whether written or spoken.

What does the business’s message need to achieve?

One, it needs to be focused not on itself and what it offers, but on what its target customers need and want. It’s all about the old features and benefits story; the “what’s in it for me.”

Two, it needs to be written and/or spoken in the way people speak; not in the way people were taught to write at school, and not written by people who haven’t got the skills to understand how to communicate properly. Most importantly, it needs to be written in the way that the target audience speaks – and thinks – not necessarily the way you  speak.

Three, it needs to establish the business’s credibility, knowledge and trustworthiness.

Why can’t businesses learn to do this for themselves?

They can, but it takes a lot of skill, experience and often some handy creative flair to encapsulate and communicate business/marketing messages that work.

Not everyone has the necessary abilities within their own skillsets.

It’s a specialist job, and that’s what a business writer does.

So what about copywriters, PR writers, corporate scriptwriters, etc.?

They’re all still around, and many are doing great jobs. But with the advent of the way online business communications have been telescoped over the last few years, these older specialisations which previously functioned in relative isolation have been drawn together.

Within the different business writing disciplines now there is far more cross-fertilisation, and cross-cutting, so a new specialisation has emerged: the business writer.

This is the writer who understands all  the current media and how they work together now.

How much does your job pay?

I try not to smile when I hear this question!

I explain that I am a freelancer, and although my fees are high compared with those of some other disciplines and services, you need to add up the experience and skill folks like me have earned over time, which is what clients are paying for. The upside is that people like me who are experienced at what we do normally can do a great job in far less time that would take an inexperienced business writer, or the client him/herself.

Plus that, though, you need to be sure that whatever experience and skills you have are relevant to what’s happening now – not necessarily when you learned those skills. Keeping in touch and ahead of the posse is critically important in this job, like it is in nearly all others.

“If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait till you hire an amateur.” Unknown, but whoever said it was absolutely right.

The other question that makes me smile is when they ask what it’s like to be self-employed.

So much depends on how these kids have been brought up, and not many have an entrepreneurial spirit. This is something that you won’t find very surprising considering that so many families are fearful of self-employment.

It can be lonely out there and quite obviously it makes sense for school leavers and university leavers to become employees to get some industry experience before they contemplate doing their own thing.

But in my limited experience of talking to these kids so far, actually there have been maybe 3 or 4 who do  want to be self-employed entrepreneurs. One 15-year-old the other day even told me about his idea for a new business, which he wants to seek funding to develop. Although it’s not an original idea (and very few are these days) it’s a good one. I was truly impressed!

What about the “business writing training?”

That’s easy of course: if people want to write their own blogs, web text, branding and other communications themselves I am very happy to show them how I do it.

I say that rather than “teach” them, because as opposed to being a professional trainer I am a practitioner who shares skills. There’s a difference there which I share with the kids and which, I suspect, some of the teachers might feel a bit uncomfortable about.

To me, once you get out of full time education and into the real world, real-life practitioners – although not trained trainers/teachers, usually have much more useful practical stuff to share. But that’s getting into another realm altogether.

So what can kids learn from what I do?

Unless they are either extremely keen or drooling mad/loco, they won’t really want to follow my path. It’s too specialised, too fussy, yet too nebulous all at the same time.

However what I hope that chatting to me will do for them, is make them:
1.Understand the role business writing plays in the workplace, whether in commercial business or in other organisations (e.g. not-for-profits, charities, public sector, etc.)
2.See why good writing (written and spoken words) is important in the “real world” because it forms the basis of most modern human communication
3.Appreciate that no matter how boring it may seem, correct  grammar/spelling/punctuation in job applications and CVs/résumés can make the difference between your getting a job, and not getting it.

Number 3 is easily the most important point I can get over to them.

Have you tried voluntary work like that recently?

Maybe you should, in your town, city or region. It’s really rewarding – and often, very inspiring.

If you’re in southern UK, have a look at the Worktree or ProActive Education websites to get an idea of how they help secondary/high school students via volunteers from the business community.

You will also find more information about what’s being run in your area and/or country if you Google employability education.”

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