The Write Stuff

In the most recent Vistage CEO Confidence Index, Vistage members were asked:  How difficult is it to find people with the right skills to drive business growth? A resounding 71% of these CEOs of small to medium sized businesses stated that it is “difficult to find qualified talent.”

It’s a troubling number that may be fueled in large part by a true gap in the skill sets required by today’s business leaders, but it may also be the result of some mis-perception with regard to the language skills (particularly writing) of young people entering the workforce.

Clive Thompson wrote a terrific piece in Wired Magazine last year, citing a five year study conducted by Dr. Andrea Lunsford at Stanford. The Stanford Study of Writing was a substantial undertaking where, between 2001 and 2006, she led a review of more than 14,000 student writing samples – everything from academic papers to Twitter updates. The results not only dispelled fears among many about the evolution of our language, but also provided illuminating insights about the future.

I hear people lament the demise of the English language all the time. They speak to how texting, tweeting, and other such practices are contributing to poor grammar, marginal spelling, and an inability to express oneself “properly” in the written form.  Lunsford disagrees.   She claims, “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” And as Thompson points out, “For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write.  It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.”

Among other things, Lunsford’s study shows that students are highly attuned to their audiences and write with a sense of purpose and persuasion that is actually at a higher level when compared with previous generations. The fact that today’s young people write so frequently across so many different platforms may not make them better writers in the classic sense, but the evidence suggests they may be stronger communicators than their parents.

If Lunsford is right, we can learn a great deal from our young people if we give them the chance. They care about their audiences and know how to reach them – a powerful combination – particularly in today’s economic climate.

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