Why does business writing have to be formal? We’re not robots!

Why are we so flippin’ corporate?! There are constant advances in tech and in the tools we use to communicate with each other, but our business writing seems to be stuck in the typewriting era! Why are we still so formal in our emails, business presentations, job adverts and articles..? STOP IT!

Maybe it’s a hangover from when we first stepped into the world of work and wanted to impress our boss by showing them how ‘professional’ we were? Perhaps we have our high school English teachers’ voices ringing in our ears (“essays should include a structured introduction, point, example, explanation, conclusion…”).

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s safer and more comfortable to hide behind formal business jargon than it is to write how and what we really think…

Here’s what we think our reader is interested in:

  1. Our state of mind ‘I’m delighted to tell you/we’re pleased to announce…
  2. Company history ‘we began trading in 1973 and since then we’ve totally redesigned our website and now use a fancy new blue font’
  3. Statements that make assumptions ‘As a busy Finance Director you must be interested in X…’

What they’re actually interested in:

  1. Themselves
  2. What’s in it for them or how they’re affected
  3. …themselves.

Whether drafting a huge tender pitch, proving copy for a website, or writing an e-magazine, take a minute to remember that it’s not about you. Encourage your clients to understand that if what you’ve written doesn’t jump out of the page, smack the reader between the eyes and really TALK to them directly, they’re not interested.

Business owners are in love with their company, managers are in love with their product, analysts are in love with their charts and figures and graphs. But you must make your reader fall in love too, otherwise your idea won’t stick and your information won’t have an impact.

Jargon: ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.’

Jargon is often used as a badge of status by business owners, a way to show off – ‘Look at me, I understand the strategic roadmap and key deliverables, aren’t I clever?’.

Well, not really! Because you’ve just alienated your reader by making them feel ignorant, incompetent, or an outsider. Business speak is all head, no heart, but we make decisions about what we buy and how we engage based on how we feel.

So let’s de-clutter:

  1. Simplify: Feeling smug once you’ve written your perfect email (which took ages to write perfectly)? Stop! f you’re just trying to prove your linguistic prowess that you know fancy words, great – do a crossword! If there’s a shorter, simpler word or phrase, use it.
  2. Read what you’ve written aloud: Sound like something you’d say in person or over the phone? Could a colleague or someone who knows you ‘hear’ your voice in your writing when they read it? Well for goodness sake, why not?! Re-write.
  3. Cut the waffle and be specific: ‘strategic road map based on key deliverables’, ‘bottom-line orientation’, ‘interactive organisational resources’, ‘financial acumen’ …what does any of this actually mean?! If there are key words or industry specifics that you have to use, why not explain them in brackets so that everyone outside your trade can understand.
  4. Speak to one specific person: Write in first person (you, your, you’ll etc.). “New readers might think” or “The ideal candidate will have X degree” are cold and impersonal. Avoid your reader getting lost in the crowd by speaking directly to them
  5. Mix it up: Vary your sentence length to emphasise important points. It works. Limit paragraphs to 5 or 6 lines and break up text with bullet points, visuals or graphs if appropriate. And please, go wild and abbreviate words – it’ll, don’t, haven’t…(daring…)
  6. Be human: It’s ok to be friendly and even thrown in the odd joke now and again. Because, guess what? The person reading is a human too…
  7. Use your common sense: Perhaps a formal legal document isn’t the right place to throw in a casual ‘YOLO’ or ‘lol’, so please use your brain!

Is this going to take you way out of your comfort zone? Possibly, at first, but you’ll notice the results and guess what? It’s much more fun!

Happy informal writing, everyone!

P.S. Are the robots and AI taking over, or is it actually us who are robotic..? Is it any wonder that we’re happy talking to chatbots…? Possibly because they’re more human in their communication than most business owners and clients let us be…!


22nd September 2017

Mark Elliott

Great article!

It’s an easy trap to fall into ‘lingo’. I’ve done it and still do sometimes.

One thing I would say, is that when writing to certain level people in certain sectors they are used to a ‘tone of voice’.

I’ve seen someone try and write all ‘matey’ to the people in the sector I’m thinking of (Note I am deliberately not stating)….it went horribly wrong!

So, yes, I agree that a formal tone is not always applicable. But matching tone of voice IS important. To level, to engage, to engender a bond…

Then gauge how relaxed your tone can become.

Well, that’s my perspective/experience. But I’m no copywriting Expert.

What do you think?

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