Use your business casual voice
When my family moved from Tulsa to Houston, my siblings and I picked up the accent pretty quickly. When an aunt visited us from the Midwest, my 5-year-old brother proudly announced:
“I used to talk human, now I talk Texas.”
Do you ever feel like that? “I used to talk human, now I talk Toyota.” “I used to talk human, now I talk Coca-Cola.” “I used to talk human, now I talk Intuit.”
Make sure you’re talking human — not bureaucratic gobbledygook — on your website. Having a personality is essential online. Go for an individual, not institutional, voice.
In other words, as Stacey Cox, manager of internal communications at CenterPoint Energy, says, use your “business casual” or “casual official” voice online.
Here are five ways to speak “business casual” on your website:
1. Bring your personality to work.
Are you writing messages as if your CEO is looking over your shoulder? Choosing big, important, bureaucratic words and using your stuffiest, stand-up-straight grammar? Carefully sucking all the personality out of your prose?
Here’s an idea: Have a personality. Have an actual person’s personality, not a corporate communication department’s personality.
“Get human!” writes Amy Gahran, author of Contentious.com:
“Stop trying to speak in a monolithic, generic voice. It’s incredibly difficult to write that way, and it’s even more excruciating to have to read that kind of content. Why make things so hard for yourself and your audience? Just write clearly, in human terms … No one believes a monolithic voice, so it undermines your credibility.”
Shonali Burke Consulting is one organization that’s nailed a human voice. I can almost hear Shonali speak as I read:
“Tired of the noise? Looking for a smart communications strategy that will positively impact your business? You’ve reached the right place. Welcome.”
My favorite line?
“Enough about me. How can I help you?”
Yep, it’s easier to hit the right tone when your name’s on the door. But here’s a process for finding the right voice when it’s not.
2. Write a letter.
In 1962, Tom Wolfe was covering the hot rod and custom car culture of Southern California for Esquire.
That is, he was trying to cover it. He was having so much trouble that his desperate editor, Byron Dobell, asked Wolfe to send him his notes, so he could have another writer finish the job.
On the night before the deadline, Wolfe sat down at his typewriter and, ignoring all journalistic conventions, banged out a personal letter to Dobell explaining what he wanted to say on the subject. Dobell just removed the salutation — “Dear Byron” — and published the letter intact.
The result was “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” — an article that helped establish the New Journalism movement.
Frustrated with IBM employee jargon, Eliot Fette Noyes — who invented the IBM Selectric typewriter — composed a pamphlet called “Dear Mother.” He suggested that employees write memos as if they were simple notes to Mom.
Warren Buffett famously writes his letters to shareholders to his sister Bertie.
If it works for them, it might work for you.
3. Write your piece in the first person.
“If you aren’t allowed to use ‘I,’ at least think ‘I’ while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the ‘I’s out,” Zinsser suggests. “It will warm up your impersonal style.”
Great tip for content marketing pieces.
4. Read your message aloud.
To make sure your business writing is conversational, say, “Hey! Did you hear?” Then read your copy aloud.
If the rest of your message sounds as if it could logically follow that introduction, you’re on the right track. If it sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons (“Wah Wah Wah Wah”) you might want to revise.
5. Write in a conversational style.
Want readers to pay attention to every single word?
Don’t worry too much about formal writing and grammar rules. Instead, aim for a good conversational tone — informal, me-to-you, one-to-one, focused on your target audience and appropriate to your subject matter.
To sound more conversational:
- Avoid long sentences. They can be stuffy, and short ones are easy to understand. (And don’t start a sentence with long dependent clauses.)
- Write in the active voice. Write in Subject-Verb-Object sentences — explain who did what to whom. Avoid the passive voice.
- Choose the second person. Call your reader “you” instead of “the employee” or “the customer.”
- Drop the jargon and bureaucratese. Translate from the language of your organization to the language of your reader.
- Show your enthusiasm. “The nonverbal message of good writing is, ‘I understand this subject, I love it, and you are going to love it too,’” says Crawford Kilian, author of Writing for the Web.
Gobbledygook courtesy of: Golden Bull-winning direct mail letter from the Crafts Council of Ireland; Web Economy Bullshit Generator’ a job opening announcement at Chevron, published in The Chicago Sun-Times