Effective business writing: don’t be too formal
Readers expect light, friendly and accessible texts
Lighten up! Don’t let outdated business writing rules spoil your communication. This short guide is for anyone writing or managing business communication, whether for print or digital production.
This short guide is for anyone writing or managing business communication, whether for print or digital production.
It’s time to get rid of outdated business writing rules
Communicating well in business is crucial for success. Yet many of the business writing rules that we still blindly follow date 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 rules about “formal” writing.
No wonder so many people struggle to find the right language, style and tone of voice for business communication today. When you use traditional business writing rules, the final text often feels too formal, too academic, even downright antiquated.
It makes your communication sound, at best, unfriendly. At worst, arrogant, pedantic and pompous. Unless that’s the brand you’re deliberately aiming for (it takes all kinds), you don’t want to sound like that.
Even in a business context, today’s readers expect light, friendly and accessible texts.
1990s companies broke the rules of business branding
Just 20-something years ago, internet companies were the first to throw 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, none of that is unusual anymore. Businesses have transformed and business “rules” have shifted, along with employee and customer expectations.
But in many organizations, 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. That needs to change.
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 was 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 with only one 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, organizations today are straddling the fence of print/digital.
- Many business documents are created only for digital consumption (reading on a 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.
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. 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.
The formal – informal balancing act
Being too informal in business is more damaging than being too formal. Remember to aim for “business-casual”, not “Saturday-at-the-beach-casual”.
See also: 10 new rules for business writing.