When I taught business writing at Kwantlen University last fall, I was struck by the number of students who struggled with appropriate tone and style in their writing.
Business writing has become much more conversational over the past twenty years. Where previously we used archaic words and expressions like “therefore”, “henceforth”, “as required”, “per your request” and so on, we now write more informally, more like the way we talk.
I’d expected the first-year students to write too informally. But in fact they went in the other direction. They would end business emails with stiff, old-fashioned sentences like this:
“Should you have any further questions or concerns, please be advised you may contact the below-mentioned writer of this email.”
I would cross out this sentence (using my big red pen) and replace it with something simpler:
“Please call or email if you have questions.”
In a way, this sentence is completely superfluous … everyone in the workplace (including a CEO) is accessible by email and by phone, so why even say it?
It’s a courtesy, of course. Seniors managers like to appear accessible (even if they aren’t!). The example above, by the way, came from an assignment where students had to send an email from the CEO of a restaurant chain announcing a wage boost for servers and an end to tipping. (this was based on the successful experiment by Ivars, a well-known seafood restaurant in Seattle).
The move to more informal business prose is all to the good, I think. It makes our writing shorter, more accessible and more personal. We don’t hide behind passives. We put ourselves into our writing. We say “I” and “me” and “ours” and “yours”.
And just as our work clothes have become more comfy and relaxed, so have our writing styles. Please note I am not advocating the verbal equivalent of shorts, t-shirts and sandals in the workplace!
Wherever I work and write, and particularly in the IT world, I try to use this conversational style. Only very rarely do people scratch their heads and ask me why I write the way I do. Mostly they nod and say that’s fine and I’m allowed to carry on.
In the end, I consider it a bit of a stealth revolution on my part. It’s really just the continuous execution of my “simplicity, clarity, brevity” mantra over and over again, until it’s no longer noticed. That’s the true revolution – for something to become as normal and natural as breathing. Or a conversation.
(The photo at the top shows The Conversation, a modern sculpture on Plaza San Francisco in Havana.)