On writing “how I talk”

Sometimes people say of their personal writing style, “I write how I talk.”  This approach presents inherent problems if the purpose of the writing centers on presentation of business issues or persuasion of audiences that literally don’t know your voice.

First, when we speak, our words become infused with a vast array of inflections and nuances that allow others fluent in our language (and culture) to understand much more about what we are saying.  For instance, on paper “no” may simply and soundly indicate a negative response.  Depending on the inflection in a voice, we might understand it to mean:  not now, but someday; never in a million years; as sarcasm for really meaning “yes;” or something else entirely. No?

Unfortunately, in a world where a significant percentage of social conversations have migrated to casual email and text messages, people begin to forget that in professional settings the reader may not be familiar with the writer’s conversational style and personality.  So what may have been meant jokingly can be taken seriously or otherwise out of context.

The other danger in this spoken style stems from the “casualization” of business communications as social network norms spill into the workplace.  When the lines begin to blur between professional and personal life in any aspect, the opportunities for problems increase.  As a long-time public relations practitioner, my concern regarding casual communication goes beyond the potential for misunderstanding.  It lies in the image this tone sets, i.e. the way in which an individual or organization is perceived when casual style infuses corporate reporting or other correspondence.  Does the use of text acronyms in company email make the correspondence and organization seem less professional – and ultimately less valuable to stakeholders?  IDK…That’s not true.  Of course it does.

Now, obviously, it would be disingenuous (given the format of these memos) to suggest that writing in a first person voice has no place in business communications… but this is meant to be a blog entry, not a newsletter article, press release or policy memorandum.  In addition, those readers who know me personally would likely note that while these memos have a somewhat conversational tone, having a conversation with me involves a substantially different voice.

This brings up potentially the most important issue.  When writing “how I talk” there can be a tendency to treat the writing like a conversation… which can’t be edited.  However, in professional settings, every e-mail (and even a text message) warrants the time to review and edit for clarity and, yes, punctuation.  Seriously compare the time you may have saved in not editing that one-paragraph e-mail with the time it takes to respond to the questions caused by typos or unclear sentences.

Of course, I’m a communications guy, so I’m overly sensitive about these details… maybe.  Ask the boss how much attention these issues deserve, and whether writing how you talk works at your office. Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is the director of the UST MBC program.