The formal business voice is dead

In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t.

SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:

Hi Shelly

 We’re sorry we got the date wrong for setting up the internet at your new home.  We know that was really inconvenient.

 Thanks for letting us know about the mistake so we could fix it.  We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

 Thanks,

Your Favourite Internet Provider

UNSUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = the traditional, formal business voice

Dear valued customer

It is with regret that we write to express our apologies for the recent error.

There was an unavoidable disruption within our system due to a service upgrade.   We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Sincerely

Just Another Nameless Faceless Internet Provider

I imagine you would struggle to think of the last time you were happy to read something written in that voice.  And I’m not just talking about apologies.  So I want to say this to you:

The formal business voice is DEAD.

There is no longer ANY place for it in business today. I cannot find a single situation where the formal voice is helpful.

Oh no wait, that’s not true.  There is one time:  If you want to threaten, use the formal voice.

“Should the undersigned not comply with the aforementioned conditions, immediate remedial action will be undertaken.”

If you want to alienate and intimidate and put the fear of god (or the courts) into someone, use the formal voice.  If you want to achieve almost anything else on the planet, use a conversational voice.

I imagine that so far you’re reading and thinking, well duh, that’s obvious.

But here’s something I’ve learned through training thousands of people to write better in business contexts:  Our writer selves don’t know what our reader selves do.

You know good writing.  When you read (at work) you want clear, straight to the point, no fluff, no mucking around.  But when you sit down to write, a completely different set of knowings takes over, and we completely forget what we know as readers (or we think we’re different.  Special.  Unusual because we want those things.  We’re not – sorry ‘bout it.  Everyone wants concise, clear, direct writing).

Our writer-selves believe:

  • there are unbreakable rules for good writing at work (and we learned them at school/university)
  • we’ll sound unprofessional (or unintelligent) if our writing is too casual
  • the examples of bad writing that we see all around us (that we HATE to read) are what’s expected of us in a business setting, period

Are you scared?

You wouldn’t be alone.  I may have just shaken your foundations.

Alan Siegel, who’s known internationally for his work simplifying legal documents (while retaining all their legal power), describes what he does as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy – building humanity into communications.”

I LOVE THAT because right there is my issue with the formal business voice and why I say it’s DEAD:  The formal business voice removes the humanity.

It takes out the people.  It takes out the you, we, us and switches to third person – the client, the user.

It removes ownership and accountability and instead just talks about things “happening”, like:

Mistakes were made.  [isn’t that wonderful?  They just happened.  No one is to blame.]

It is recommended.  [By whom?  The universe?]

Don’t believe me?

People have been researching this stuff for decades.  And we know that a simple, conversational voice is far more successful when compared to the formal voice:

  • It’s shorter
  • It’s easier to understand
  • It’s more engaging
  • It deescalates situations rather than escalating them (the formal voice sounds pompous and the last thing you want when tensions are high is to sound pompous – cos that helps. )

Still don’t believe me?

Think about brands you love.

Think about how they write to you – by email, in agreements, terms and conditions, on the web.  They have a conversation with you.  They don’t talk down to you.  And you know what?  If THEY can use a conversational, everyday voice and drop the formality in their business writing, SO CAN YOU.

The formal business voice is DEAD.  It’s old, shrivelled, fossilised.

You’re not!

So write like a human.  Preferably a live one.

By |2018-11-21T06:39:51+00:00November 20th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

About the Author:

Shelly Davies, managing director of Hamilton-based Shelly Davies Writing & Training, bounced unconventionally and entertainingly into the New Zealand communications landscape in 2012. With a brand that’s exploded across a surprising mix of sectors and industries she’s now leading the pack.“Brand Shelly” is out of the box, bubbly, pretty damn irresistible, more than a little sassy, and rapidly giving fewer and fewer f*cks what anyone thinks. And it’s working. Her writing is sharp, sought after, and highly paid. Her trainings are high energy, instantly impactful, and booked up to 2 years in advance.She did her time in the classroom torturing teenagers and indoctrinating university students with academic conventions. She killed off one husband, kicked out another one, and popped out 3 money-sucking vampires. And then she discovered something amazing: good writing PAYS. And like common sense, it ain’t common.Want more? Talk to Shelly.

2 Comments

  1. Maureen Pearce November 21, 2018 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Yo Shelley, great to see you started adding to Bla Bla again!

    I watched this TED Talk a few days ago and keep catching myself changing how I write my emails and also a few phone convos.

    Thanks!

    • Shelly Davies November 21, 2018 at 12:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the nudge! More to come <3

      And thanks for the feedback - whoop, whoop!!

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