I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about how I write. Specifically, what the tone and style of my writing says about me and how that reflects on the person/people I am writing to. What appears below is an attempt on my part to summarise and distill my thoughts around a few conclusions I’ve come to. As I publish this I’m aware that it also serves to keep me accountable those I communicate with in the future. So, if we’re trading emails and I start writing in long convoluted sentences, or baffle you with jargon, then feel free to call me out on it!
The Charge Sheet
I’m sure I’m not the only one guilty of the offences I’ve identified below:
We tend to do too much of our writing in the passive voice which removes responsibility and distances ourselves from our audience.
Writing in a business context shouldn’t automatically result in writing that is cold, formal and distant. Try wring in a friendly and conversational tone.
Long flowery sentences with large intimidating words do not make you sound smarter; and even if it did, the reader will struggle to connect with your message (basically swap formal words for normal ones).
Jargon is a sure-fire way to alienate an audience, yet it still creeps into most people’s writing.
Being deliberate in your writing style should not just be a consideration for those in customer focused roles; the style and tone of the writing within a company is a mirror on the culture of the organization.
I’ll tackle each of my observations under a separate heading. Let’s get started:
Writing in the passive voice removes you from the situation
A funny thing often happens when tasked to deliver written news that is uncomfortable or has a negative impact on the recipient; we tend to slip into the passive voice rather than the active. In doing so we remove ourselves from the situation, and from taking responsibility for the news we are delivering.
A good example would be being tasked with telling a client that the work you promised to deliver to them on Friday was going to be delayed by a week. Writing to tell them this in the passive voice could go something like this:
This letter is to inform you that the work promised to you by Friday will be delayed by a week. You can expect delivery by the end of the following business week.
Apologies for the inconvenience.
Clearly something has gone wrong, hence the delay. By writing in the passive voice you effectively remove yourself from the situation and by extension from taking responsibility for the delay. This makes your business sound cold and uncaring. When Pete reads the email he’ll justifiably be annoyed at the delay and perplexed by what has gone wrong.
A better approach would be to write in the active voice, taking responsibility for the delay:
I am sorry to have to write to you with the news that we’ll be one week late on our promised delivery. We have had a string of unforeseen delays which has caused havoc with our delivery schedule. I’ll personally commit to ensuring delivery by no later than the close of business next week Friday.
Once again, I apologise for the inconvenience.
The active voice approach still delivers the same news; however, it becomes easier to stomach as Bob is personally taking responsibility for the delay and humanizing the situation.
A good way to pick up whether you are writing in the passive voice is to perform the “zombie test” on your sentences. Simply add the words “by zombies” to the end of any phrase you suspect may be passive. If the phrase still makes sense, it’s passive!
Your account has been suspended indefinitely (by zombies) . . . Passive
We’ve decided to suspend your account indefinitely (by zombies) . . . Active
Don’t default to formal language
For some reason when we write to someone in a business context we switch to a much more formal tone than we’d use if we are just talking to them in person. Perhaps we do this to sound more professional or because we believe it will better get our points across.
We may write something that looks like this:
Good Day Mary,
As per our telephonic conversation we will be happy to provide you with assistance in the matter discussed. We shall commence with our services immediately to ensure that the matter be dealt with in an expedited fashion. This should serve to minimize any potential fallout arising from the public comments you made regarding Lego play amongst adults.
How about rather swapping the business speak for something a little more natural:
Thanks for the phone call. We would be very happy to help you with your PR problem after the public comments you made regarding adult Lego play. We’d like to get started immediately, as in our experience this is the most effective way to reduce any potential fallout.
A good rule here is to read what you have written aloud. Does it make sense, and is it written in a way that you might speak it to the person that you are writing to? If not, it may be best to rewrite it.
Complicated sentences filled with fancy words do little to impress
This is something that anybody that has spent some time in a corporate environment can relate to. There is always that person in the office who likes to write using complicated sentence structures interspersed (see what I did there) with some large words. This is usually done with the mistaken belief that this makes them sound smarter and more accomplished.
We thank you for the submission of your proposal to redevelop the old mariner district. We recognize that this is an arduous and time-consuming process and thank you for the time invested in completing the proposal.
The decision as to whether to proceed has provided much consternation among our directors. However, after due consideration, we are delighted to inform you that your proposal has been successful. We look forward to engaging further with you and growing this mutually beneficial relationship
It is my opinion that in many instances this can have the entirely opposite effect. Don’t use five words when three will do (I originally had written “… three will suffice” here – oops!).
In the example above, the matter being discussed is serious and so should be written more formally than an internal email to a colleague. However, the communication can still be written formally but without quite as much “fluff”.
Thank you for your submission to redevelop the old mariner district. It is clear that you and your team have put a lot of effort into the proposal which is much appreciated.
After a difficult adjudication process we are delighted to inform you that your proposal has been successful. We really connected with your vision for the space and took forward to working together to make it a reality.
The second example is written in such a way that the writer connects with the applicant and comes across as less distant and more human. The last sentence is very important as it builds rapport between the two parties before the project has even began.
Speaking in jargon to an unfamiliar audience will alienate them
It is easy to hide behind jargon. Using industry specific terminology when writing is a widely-practised technique used to establish a hierarchy in a conversation. Try reading a rental agreement, cell-phone contract, or medical insurance list of defined benefits. These are written in a manner that not only protects the issuer of the document, but also actively discourages the intended audience from working through it to gain a clearer understanding of all the terms and conditions.
Jargon-filled writing creates a natural divide between you and your audience. Why not try and write in clear, easy to understand language that can be interpreted and understood by all? Doing this will win you the loyalty and trust of your audience as people appreciate honesty and transparency.
Deliberate writing style should be practised by everyone in an organisation
You may read this and assume that these rules are only applicable if you hold in a customer-facing position in your company. After all, your customers don’t want to be bombarded by jargon and flowery writing. The thing is, neither do your colleagues! All the suggestions mentioned above are equally as applicable to the marketing manager writing to a new lead as to the product engineer writing a memo to her colleagues. Clear, concise and simple communication wins out over complicated, jargon-filled ramblings every day of the week!
Rules are made to be broken (context is king)
In ending this piece, I believe that it’s important to make one final observation. Remember that these suggestions are not hard and fast rules; nothing should be set in stone. We are all individuals, and all communicate in our own way. Some situations will demand a more formal tone in your correspondence. Sometimes it may be acceptable (often necessary) in a highly technical discipline to write a report that may only be understood by the few people in your team working closely with you.
Rules are meant to be broken! The point here is to always assess the context of the communication before diving head first into it. Think carefully about who your intended audience is, be empathetic to their needs or situation, then go forth and make the World just a little bit brighter with your writing.
The ideas described here are not entirely my own. Certainly, I’m not the only person to believe that empathetic writing has a place in our businesses and everyday lives. I’d encourage you to check out the links below for some further great reading.