Business writing 101 – I wish I had learned it at school!
by Fay Barrett
When I was at school, the business world was simply not on my radar. Writing had always been a talent of mine but I was totally unaware of the opportunities this could lead to. For me, the only people who wrote for a living were authors, script writers and journalists. Those jobs sounded pretty precarious, so writing did not feature too highly on my career prospects list. Little did I realise how valuable good writing skills would be and how the ability to write & communicate well would serve me in my working life.
When you are setting out on your career path, going through GCSE’s, A levels, deciding whether or not to go to University, it all seems very daunting. Decisions you make now can affect your options later in life. So it’s really important to know what skills are sought after in the work place in order to make effective choices. Building on skills you already possess, so they match what employers look for, is invaluable.
Learning to adapt existing writing skills, so they translate to the business world, is vital. Fortunately, Sixth Form students are uniquely equipped for just that. They’ve already spent the majority of their school lives writing essays. Capitalising and channelling those skills NOW places them at a huge advantage entering the world of work, whether that’s straight from school or after university. Far from simply being the property of academia, essay writing can and must be translated into the business sphere in order to keep the wheels of industry turning smoothly.
If you can write well, you can communicate well. This is central to good business practise. If you’re not getting your message across effectively, how can you be sure your colleague is on the same page as you? How can you know your client understands the brief? How can you be certain your target audience will be suitably enticed to buy your product? In offices, words zip around electronically day and night, via email & websites. The web ensures a never ending need for new content as copy expires almost as soon as it has gone online.
There are countless avenues, for those with business writing acumen, to tread; far from the naive limitations I saw at school. Administration, Finance, PR, Marketing, Lawyers/Solicitors, Advertising, Content writing for the web/social media, bid/tender writing, let alone journalists, authors and script writers; are just some of the areas that require excellent writing skills. Even putting together straightforward emails or letters; all communications can be greatly improved by someone who knows how to write.
Having spent over 12 years in the world of work, I can look back and reflect on the choices I made at 17/18. Hindsight of course is a wonderful thing and life has a habit of taking us down unexpected turns that couldn’t be planned for. If, however, I could go back in time and speak to my 18 year old self I would encourage her to embrace the written word and the many opportunities this could open to her, particularly within the business world (although she probably wouldn’t listen to me!).
Top Tips for CVs
Our founder Sharon Pink talked to LBC Radio 97.3 FM about the top tips for CVs – a main topic of concern for all our school and college-leavers.
What is a CV and why do you need one?
A curriculum vitae or résumé is all about YOU. It’s YOUR sales tool. It showcases your skills, learning and experience, your achievements and accomplishments. The purpose of your CV is to win you an interview. So you want it to be smart, professional, easy to follow and well-written.
Layout and style
No gimmicks unless you are going for a really creative role.
CVs are usually distributed via email these days so make sure yours is easy to view on any PC screen, which means minimise fuss and avoid strange fonts or characters.
Keep your layout simple and uncluttered – make it easy for people to see what you did and when. You don’t have to write a lot – maximum two pages for a first job and probably one is enough for a school student or school-leaver. The key is: don’t cram it all in just to make it fit one page.
CONTENT is the main thing but spelling is really important – and we mean not making basic mistakes. Don’t rely on spell-checkers because they allow lots of different types of spelling that may not be technically wrong but aren’t right in your context. You need a real person to read it and check it for you. Ideally a parent or a teacher or a careers officer or a neighbour – if you know someone who is an employer in a business, show it to them – or ask us to help!
If you’re going for a job in a certain industry or for a particular company, do tailor a CV to that company or enclose a cover letter properly tailored to what they are looking for. If you’re applying to a particular company, read their web site, look at their marketing materials, see how they describe their company and their corporate values and you can follow their example in the style of language they use.
Some businesses are very formal and others are more relaxed and they want to know you can fit in with their style. Reading up about them will help you write your CV to fit with their company style.
Make the most of any work experience
If you’re going for your first job or for work experience, the main mistake is to think that you don’t really have anything to say because you haven’t had a job yet – so school students tend to just put the dates they went to school, the subjects they took and the results they got. How does that make you stand out from the thousands of other CVs all saying the same thing? Think about the following aspects of work that employers really value:
TEAMWORK – What teams have you been in? Sports teams, drama teams, a park football team, anything like that – and show how you contributed – businesses need people who are good at working in teams so they want to hear about this! If you can’t think of that kind of team, did your class ever run an Assembly on a special topic? Did you do a class project that meant working on a team? What was it about? Business is often about project work – that’s teamwork too. Write about it!
LEADERSHIP – Were you a team captain? A form captain? Head Girl or Boy? Head of the Drama Club, chess club, Make-Up club, the Lady Gaga Fan Club, whatever it is, if you led it – talk about it! Any experience of leadership is a good marker for your future career so promote it on your CV.
RESPONSIBILITY – If you aren’t or weren’t a leader as such, what about other forms of RESPONSIBILITY?
Some school students get involved in showing parents around the school when they come to open days, being the lunch monitor, helping with playground duty – it all helps give employers confidence you can be trusted and are ready for roles with responsibility. What about outside school? Baby-sitting involves significant responsibility; looking after brothers and sisters, helping neighbours with shopping or odd things round the house. If you’ve done any work experience in a shop for example, working on a till will show you’ve had experience of managing money and have been trusted in a customer service environment. It’s what employers want to see.
INITIATIVE, ENTERPRISE, CHARITY EVENTS, SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY- Ever do any sponsored or charity events in school or with friends or family outside school? Shows initiative, social responsibility, supporting the community or working with the public – write about it!
RELEVANT ACTIVITIES – Then, whatever job you’re going for, think about what’s relevant to that type of work? If you’re going for creative jobs, what have you made? Costumes for school plays? Bits of scenery? Artwork, paintings? Recorded any music? A video or two on YouTube or something – provided it’s fit to be seen, use those as references. Written any articles or poems for the school newsletter or web site? Enclose examples or pictures.
REFERENCES – Speaking of references, get some – any work you have had, even just a Saturday job, get a reference from the manager or owner. Build your references and build your credibility.
And lastly, we can’t emphasise it enough – if you want to improve your spelling, at any age, just read more. Not social media because that’s not necessarily where to look for great spelling, but books and newspapers and, if you’re looking at joining the world of work, read the business sections, read business magazines, read trade magazines, learn how business people talk and write and that will help you write better.
For any schools who would like targeted sessions for Sixth Formers on CV and interview preparation, you know where we are!
Our social media training is always a revelation to school students because for many years all they’ve been told is “Don’t use social media in school time”! Another revelation, perhaps not so welcome, is discovering how much is already ‘out there’ in cyberspace about them if potential employers check them out …. All your youthful commentary on the meaning of life (and alcohol, and football teams, and other people…) is there to be viewed, in perpetuity….
While you can delete some accounts and comments (assuming you remember how to access them!), some will always remain. The key is to develop better materials and keep adding to them so that more recent (more sensible) profiles come to the fore when anyone searches for you online.
As a good start to your professional career, create your own LinkedIn profile (www.linkedin.com). It’s free to sign up and you will be able to showcase activities, projects, training and qualifications that demonstrate how you have taken responsibility (= shown leadership) or participated (= learned about teamwork) in school, uni, neighbourhood, family or other community activities. All these will help to build a picture of you as motivated, organised and responsible – an asset to any business! For examples of the type of information to include in a LinkedIn profile, look up a range of people in different industries – local business owners, people you or your parents know, for example. All of the people listed in our School Dynamics team will also have LinkedIn profiles so feel free to check us out for ideas as to how to create your own profile.
Once your profile is set up, start to connect to people you know. Don’t worry that as a school or uni leaver you won’t have many connections initially. This will build as you get more involved in business activities and meet more people. On your profile, you also give a contact email address where people can write to you – make sure that’s a sensible email address: time to leave the childhood quirky ones behind…
If you’re interested in a career in particular industries or companies, explore individual company pages on LinkedIn and particularly check out the special interest groups. Many groups are open for anyone to join and you can review the range of discussions in there to see what is current and topical, give you inspiration for questions to ask at interviews or identify further areas to explore. You can also ask the expert group contributors for their advice on anything you’re interested in – you never know what opportunities may come from that! Contributing to the groups will also enable you to ‘meet’ more people to add to your connections.
Also on LinkedIn you can use the ‘share’ facility to post updates about activities or projects you get involved in – this all helps to increase awareness and expand your presence on the site. Make sure also that you give your LinkedIn profile address on any CV you send to a potential employer.