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.

How to be concise – strip out the fluff!

Being wordy is only good if you’re a dictionary.

If there’s one thing we know about text, it’s that messages get weaker as the word count grows.  But, flick our writer switch, and what happens?  The more concerned we are with getting our point across, the more words we use!

Doh!

We’re worried people won’t get it.  We’re worried they might miss something.  So we say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways, trying to cover all our bases.  All the “just in case”s.  Every eventuality.

You know what that gets us?  Really badly written legalese.

Brief = strong

The best business writing is stripped back to just what’s needed to make your points and achieve your outcomes.

So how do we strip our writing back, but still be comprehensive enough to get the job done?  Here are a few quick approaches.

Strip out fluffy, wordy phrases

It’s easy, when we’re trying to put our most professional foot forward, to take on an unnaturally wordy voice.  Because we want to be taken seriously, we try to sound a bit more formal.  Resist!

UseInstead of
toin order to
canbe able to
becauseas a consequence of
considergive consideration to

Write less formally and more conversationally

We think a conversational voice is waffly, and that’s true in one respect – we speak in very long, run-on sentences with lots of “and”s.

But if we use conversational to mean the active voice and everyday words, that will be less wordy than a traditional formal voice.

Use headings and bullets

A well-written heading speaks directly to your reader.  It engages them. The following approach forces you to think first, write second, and do that in a very focused way.

  1. Separate your thinking into key points
  2. Turn those into statement headings
  3. Then list supporting info as bullet lists beneath them

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting that you then flesh out each of those bullets into a paragraph.  The bullets are enough!  Use them as often as you can (but keep each list short – no more than 7 bullets).

Stay concise and outcomes focused and your business readers will love you for it!

How does plain language save money?

So I’m guessing you’re here because either

  1. you LOVE plain language and want to convince someone at work that it’s worth investing in, or
  2. you’ve heard about this plain language thing but you’re not yet sure you buy into it

Either way, I can help you out. So let’s dive into this.

Plain language (or plain English) saves money. It’s a simple fact. Plain language means your business will

  • save time (don’t just skip over that – it’s the most significant financial benefit)
  • improve customer experience and reduce queries
  • increase compliance and reduce risk
  • increase brand trust and credibility

Want more detail? Duh, I know that. THAT was just the intro – the high-level overview. Which, by the way, is a handy plain language approach to structuring documents.

Like how I did that? Now enough chit chat. Here’s what you came for.

Plain language saves time, which saves money. Piles of it. Sometimes great whopping mountains of it.

Save time reading

Joseph Kimble reports a US study using a Marine Radio Regulation. They gave people 1 of 2 versions of the regulation: the original or a plain language rewrite. Then they asked questions, and the readers had to find the answers in the document. The time to read, process, and answer the questions was almost halved – from 3 ½ minutes per question with the original, to less than 2 minutes per question with the plain language version.

How many minutes a day do your staff spend reading regulations, standards, policies, procedures and other indecipherable stuff? Just imagine how much time they could save.

Save writing time

In my trainings, I help people reconnect with our natural ways of expressing ideas – basically, the way we speak. When we write that like that we let go of so many worries and conventions and constructs that slow us down. It’s just faster! And the Plain English Campaign in the UK agrees.

Plain language improves CX and reduces customer queries, complaints, and all those fun games of email ping pong

  • The US Federal Communications Commission once needed five fulltime staff members to field all the phone calls and queries about its rules for Citizen Band Radios. Putting the regulations into plain English freed all five staff members to, well, get other shit done.
  • The Canadian government reports that when they rewrote their Certificate to Register Livestock, the compliance rate soared from a miserable 40% (imagine how much time THAT wasted) to 95%. That’s huge!
  • The Arizona Department of Revenue reported they received 18 000 fewer phone calls the year after they started using plain language letters.

Plain language makes your brand more trustworthy and easier to feel personally connected to. And that, my savvy business friends, will make you money.

  • If you think about the brands you love, you’ll see they speak to you like a human. No formality, no waffle, no fluff. Microsoft’s stated position on this is beautiful. Why wouldn’t the same apply to your company?
  • This Siegel and Gale study is just one of many that prove how readers trust information they can easily understand. Did you hear that? CLEAR AND SIMPLE = TRUSTWORTHY.
  • I’m sorry to say it, but Trump’s use of plain language is one of the reasons people voted for him. (Use your #PlainLanguage powers for good, people.)

Work it out – how much can you save using plain language?

The UK’s Plain Language Commission recommends this calculation to estimate how much money your business can save through using plain language:

Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produces in one working day. Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page. Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 messages a day). That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day. Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.

The Commission says that plain language will cut this bill by 30 percent.

So the question is, really, can you afford NOT to invest in upskilling your people and embedding beautiful, crisp, clear plain language communication strategies throughout every inch of your business? I think not. I know someone who can help you with that …