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 customerIt 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.SincerelyJust 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.

Writing for outcomes – how to structure a business document Part 2

In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort*  That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing.  Sorry bout it.

In part one I covered the upfront framing that –

  1. gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
  2. engages the right audience.

But I promised more.  So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.

Let’s be very clear about how documents work

  1. You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
  2. To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
  3. The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this)
  4. The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
  5. Shall I say it again? Write for them.  Not for you.  That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.

Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla

Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing.  This is true.  But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.

Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).

And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –

  • to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
  • to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things.  People do)
  • to define… (see above)
  • to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)

None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.

Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:

  1. What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
  2. If this document works, what will HAPPEN?

Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.

Know your audience, bla, bla, bla

Again, everyone tells us this.  And it’s true.  But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs.  So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.

How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document.  Who will access it?  Who will use it?  Who will sign off on it?  Who might need to refer to it?

Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.

And ask the 3rd question:

  1. Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?

Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers.  They matter the most.  Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else.  (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user.  Handy!)

Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document

With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure.  I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like.  But again, unicorn farts.  From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle.  You can create a structure that will work best.

Ask yourself –

  • What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
  • Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?

It’s all connected.

Want to know more?  Bring me in for a training.  I’ve got so much more!!!!