As regular readers will know, I run audit report writing courses for a living. For the past couple of years, I have included a small module I call "the hashtag generation". It was originally intended as a little light relief from the rigours of grammar but as time passes the subject has the potential to become a serious threat to the audit report.
The problem is this – If you walk down any busy street you will soon find yourself bumping into someone head-down, absorbed by their phone, tapping away to someone unseen. There's a good chance they're on Twitter or Facebook or using SMS. We are told that using these services now account for much of the writing we do each day. (Unbelievable, but users of WhatsApp send an average of 43 messages a day!)
I find myself asking whether this is a kind of malignant disease that's eroding the quality of writing everywhere, resulting in a decline in standards of spelling, grammar and punctuation or whether I am being overly melodramatic!
The good news, as I see it, is that we are spending more time writing than ever. After all, practice makes perfect we are always told and whether you are a baseball fan or follow cricket we all know that the pitcher/bowler spends a great deal of time in the nets perfecting their art. Whether that really works or not is perhaps best judged by the scores on the board, the selectors or the fans.
With that in mind perhaps we should ask our judges, the auditees, the CEO's and audit heads what they think.
In my experience, these people call me in to help their teams become more efficient. The area where this is most evident is the "review process" and one often sees a constant flow back and forth of work between managers and their staff requesting rewrites. More often this is about style rather than content, grammar or punctuation.
None the less, whatever your view, social media is becoming much more than just an academic argument – it matters for everyone, particularly if social media and SMS are making us incapable of stringing together persuasive arguments, producing coherent reports or even writing effective emails.
That said, to be honest, empirical evidence is hard to come by either way.
There is no question that writing on social media encourages us to write and spell words in a way that reflects speech, abbreviating words and contracting them in ways that mirror how we do so when we speak. The other issue is that when we're on social media, we are also prone to organising our ideas in the same way as we might speak them, in a more immediate, stream-of-consciousness fashion.
I have read a study of 243 children and young adults in the UK which found no correlation between grammatical errors in text messages and reduced grammar and punctuation ability in formal tests. The authors of the study note too that we must recognise a distinction in all this. Namely, there's a difference between texters deliberately violating grammatical conventions in things like text messages and showing a genuine ignorance of the rules. Indeed, many schools are suggesting that because children are writing more they are becoming more creative. They were evenly balanced when it came to poor spelling and grammar.
Crucially, though, there was no hard evidence in the study that could point to social media or texting as directly to blame.
In the end, there's no easy answer as to whether social media is good or bad overall. On the one hand, it's encouraging more people to write more often, which must surely be a good thing. On the other, it may be encouraging 'bad' habits that don't belong in a professional work environment.
One thing is certain: there's a widespread skills gap in the world of business writing, one repeatedly identified by employers and it keeps me in business.
Like it or not, social media is part of daily life and raging against this tide is ultimately futile. However, the future of writing skills is something that we can
all have a hand in shaping, by giving everyone the guidance, education and training they need to succeed. It is what companies like MISTI and TomJak are all about, they are there to help you develop your most important asset, your staff. Please contact me if you want to discuss this further and don't forget to follow MISTI on twitter @mistieurope!
Article by Chris Hollands, a director of TomJak Ltd, a company which specialises in audit training and consultancy