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First or third person what works best for business?

Anna Metcalfe

Cantaloupe Ltd | B2B Specialist | 2020 Award Winner | Time-Served Marketer

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I hope I’ve not just taken you back to your English lessons. It wasn’t my intention. I try not to get too hung up on writing jargon – there’s more to life. But this one is worth your attention because it can make a real difference to your business copy. So, I’ll explain in a (hopefully) pain-free way.

Definitions first

You might have heard these phrases bandied about by creative people and have no idea what they’re barking on about. In simple terms:

First-person: using “I” and “we” in your copy

Second person: using “you” in your copy

Third-person: using “he”, “she”, “it” or “they” in your copy

Examples are always helpful to make total sense of this:

First-person: I’d like you to keep reading this post because I think it will help you. 

Third-person: Cantaloupe would like the reader to keep reading this post because it thinks it might help them.

Can you feel the difference? It’s a blunt example, but deliberately so.

Corporate speak

Traditionally, businesses wrote in a more formal manner. They felt it gave them an air of importance. Superiority in their field.

Excel Manufacturing prides itself on the expertise it can give its customers…

This is classic third-person speak. Corporate speak if you like. It’s not wrong, but reading it as a prospective customer, it does feel a bit stand-off-ish.

How would it work in the first person then?

We pride ourselves on the expertise we can give you.

Or, mixing it up further:

You’ll welcome the expertise we can give you.

Ah, now that last one demonstrates a good point. Look at it from the reader’s perspective. You tell them what they stand to gain, starting with how it should make them *feel*

I digress…

If your copy feels a bit too corporate, it’s probably because you’re writing in the third person. Not even the largest organisations need to do this anymore, unless they want to remain distanced from their customers or retain an air of superiority (which is not ideal for customer relations).

You’re talking to one person, not a crowd

When someone reads your copy, they’re on their own. So, isn’t it best you write directly to them? If you were speaking to one person face to face, you wouldn’t say: “Excel Manufacturing prides itself on the expertise it can give its customers.”

Well, if you did, you’d soon be on your own!

Business copy works best when it feels like you’re talking just to them. It’s more engaging, and it’s easier to develop a connection that might lead to them acting on your words.

This “talking to one person” thing is first-person copywriting. You own your side of the conversation, not your company. You’re a person, or people: I or we. It’s far more human.

And what about second-person?

Well spotted.

Back to our lofty example of how not to do it:

Excel Manufacturing prides itself on the expertise it can give its customers…

As the reader, do you want to be known as “the customer”? I doubt it. You’re not a generic term, you’re you. So why not just say that!

The reader, the manager, the business owner, the consumer. No, no, no!

Just use you.

Back to the engagement thing. Using you (generously) in your copy makes for something more interesting to read. It’ll hold their attention better. Because after all, there’s no shortage of reading matter out there – we don’t HAVE to read badly constructed copy.

Is there any benefit in using third person?

Not unless you’re writing a novel, when it helps you narrate around several characters effectively.

When it comes to business copy, third-person really should be on the way out now. I still see companies hanging on to it. Sometimes it’s a culture thing yet to be changed. But honestly, it makes your copy less effective in every way.

And here’s the thing: your reader is happier reading first (and second) person copy. So why wouldn’t you write in this way?

Got some third-person copy you’d like a hand with? Don’t be embarrassed, I’ve helped many businesses refresh their ‘speak’ for the better. Give me a nudge.

What do you think?

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