Tone of voice in business writing: don’t be too formal 

Think 'conversational', not 'matey'

Lighten up! Don’t let the wrong tone of voice in your business writing spoil your communication.

Communicating well in business is crucial for success. Yet many of the guidance on business writing that we still blindly follow dates from 100 years ago or more.

In the interval, the way we speak and behave while doing business has become a lot more casual. Yet countless teachers, books and other sources still repeat the same old stuff about “formal” writing.

No wonder so many people struggle to find the right language, style and tone of voice for business communication today.

Text written in the traditional “formal business” style often sounds stuffy, academic, even downright antiquated. It makes you sound, at best, unfriendly. At worst, arrogant, pedantic and pompous. Nobody wants to sound like that.

Even in a business context, today’s readers expect light, readable texts and a conversational tone of voice.

1990s companies broke the rules of business branding

More than 25 years ago, internet companies began throwing all the rules about business branding – and business writing – out the window.

Traditional businesses found themselves side by side or competing with brands with weirdly informal names like “Hotmail” and “Yahoo”. Their CEOs wore jeans and T-shirts and kept their doors open. Office spaces had swings and ping pong tables. Everyone was on first-name terms – including customers.

Today, of course, none of that is unusual anymore. Businesses have transformed and business’ social rules have shifted, along with employee and customer expectations.

But in many organisations, business communication has hardly changed. Sure, the channels used are different, but the language, style and tone of voice are often stuck in the past. Isn’t it time to move on?

From “business formal” to “business casual” communication

You don’t need a business suit to be influential in business. And you don’t need to write like it’s 1960 to get your message across in a business-like way.

Written business communication today should NOT be authoritarian corporate-speak packed with jargon. But some things haven’t changed: it should be trustworthy, authoritative and well written.

This can be achieved by using more informal language and grammar. It’s time to get rid of the old rules about what constitutes “good” business writing. To stop being hung up about where prepositions are placed in a sentence. To stop worrying if it’s OK to start a sentence with “And” or “But”. To get rid of complicated jargon and write like a human.

To write paragraphs of only 1 sentence.

You can even – no matter how shocking it may seem – use digits instead of spelling out numbers (read more).

No doubt context is everything: your business brand will determine how far you can go in ignoring traditional rules. But don’t be afraid to stretch the limits.

Write for both print and digital media

When it comes to business documentation, organisations today are straddling the fence of print/digital.

  • Many business documents are created only for digital consumption, to be read on-screen…
  • … But businesses still need printed information.
  • Even documents created for print are usually also made available – and read – in digital form such as PDFs.
  • Emails have largely replaced letters.
  • Catalogs and brochures are online, even if still available in print.

Make your communication media-neutral

Shifting the tone of voice and writing style for different formats and media is not new. Even before digital, business writers knew how to adapt their writing for different formats such as technical reports, a presentation or customer letters.

But today the lines between print and digital communication are becoming increasingly blurred. That’s creating a growing demand for media-neutral communication; suitable for reading on a screen or in print. It needs to meet the needs of people who:

  • are in a hurry
  • want to scan text rather than read every word.

“Writing for the web” rules can be applied in different channels

As a result of the blurring lines between print and digital communication, the rules for writing for the web (read more here) can also be applied to texts intended for print.

Then it won’t matter if readers print the document or read it on the screen. It will be usable both ways.

It's a balancing act

Formal? Too formal? Getting the style and tone of voice just right is a balancing act that varies in every case, depending on the brand, the people involved, the target audience, …

Being too informal in business may be more damaging than being too formal. Remember to aim for “business-casual”, not “Saturday-at-the-beach-casual”.

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