Colloquial Writing Style: Not The Thought Leader's Enemy

A recent article I edited drew this comment repeatedly from a copy editor: "colloquial." I resisted changing the words in question and mentioned it to a colleague. This got us talking: Why have so many people decided colloquial in business writing is bad? To clarify, I don't mean colloquial terms like "sub" versus "hoagie," or "soda" versus "pop," which have a regional flavor. Those do muddy your writing, especially for a global audience. I mean writing with a conversational tone. Repeat after me: Thought leaders do not have to sound stuffy to sound authoritative.

Perhaps you cling to the formal, academic style of writing forced upon us all in college. I hate to raise the delicate topic of age, but we're not in college anymore. What worked for you in history or engineering papers will not work in Harvard Business Review.

If you hope to establish yourself as an authority, you'd better sound real. If you don't, you won't connect with people. It's really that simple.

Let's try that last paragraph again.

To establish authority, one must leverage authenticity. Failing to do so will result in missed opportunities to connect with core constituencies.

Which paragraph did you relate to as a human being? And how many articles and white papers have you pored through that sound a lot more like the latter?

Voice And Authority Pair Well

Certain people within your company may assure you that a non-conversational writing style will establish you as a subject matter expert and the business as a leading global purveyor of robust, holistic solutions (or something like that.)

You must find the strength to fight back against these people, or you will be stuck with hard work that results in didactic, stiff, and ultimately, obtuse business writing. (Picture Yoda. Channel your favorite House of Cards character. Do whatever it takes, but stick up for your voice.)

True, it takes bravery to be conversational in writing. You're putting yourself out there a little bit. But it's a risk worth taking. 

Consider this passage from thought leader Gary Hamel's article, "The Core Incompetencies of the Corporation," in Harvard Business Review, Oct. 31, 2014:

"…large organizations are incremental. Despite their resource advantages, incumbents are seldom the authors of game-changing innovation. It's not that veteran CEOs discount the value of innovation; rather, they've inherited organizational structures and processes that are inherently toxic to break-out thinking and relentless experimentation. Strangely, most CEOs seem resigned to this fact, since few, if any, have tackled the challenge of innovation with the sort of zeal and persistence they've devoted to the pursuit of operational efficiency. Their preferred strategy seems to be to acquire young companies that haven't yet lost their own innovation mojo (but upon acquisition most likely will)."

Hamel uses a sophisticated vocabulary, but he is unafraid to use words like "toxic" and "mojo," which are colloquial.

Look at this passage from a recent LinkedIn blog by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, "The Value of Delaying Judgement":

"One of the most important skills any leader can learn is when to be decisive, and when to take a step back and look at the wider picture before making the big calls. In times of turmoil, excitement, rapid growth, or crisis, there will be more decisions to make than usual and less time to make them. There will also be an almost irresistible temptation to make these decisions as quickly as possible. A leader must be calm, confident in his choices, visible to his team and their customers, and in control of the situation."

Branson, a sought-out expert on leadership, uses colloquial phrases like "big calls." It would not improve this piece to dress that phrase in fancier clothing.

Margaret Dawson, who runs Global Product Marketing at Red Hat, is a thought leader on the topics of women in IT and cloud computing. (I had the pleasure of speaking with her on a conference panel once.) Consider this passage from her recent column, "Women in Tech: We have not come a long way, baby": 

"Unfortunately, the greatest culprit of women not feeling empowered is often how they are treated by other women. It's as if we are in a perpetual episode of Mean Girls."  

She goes on to use phrases like "less tears and more kicks in the butt." Her voice resonates with her audience.

Beware The Importance Fake

When subject matter experts stray too far from being conversational in writing, it may actually have the opposite of the desired effect. You may raise the skepticism of the audience. Do you use formal terms because they are non-negotiable words at your company? (We have all been there. You can't avoid certain words at certain companies.) Or, do you cloak yourself in formality to try to sound more important? Don't leave your readers or audience wondering.

I have a hunch that many obtuse words and phrases that litter business writing become popular because people see them on LinkedIn profiles and resumes—and then start adopting them, just to keep up with the guy down the hall. These words are not quite jargon (which strong writers fight at all costs,) but they are puffed up.

A colleague gave the example of "purpose-led culture." This refers to companies that stress a clear mission to employees, in the name of keeping people motivated and engaged.

The core of this idea isn't new. Exceptional organizations have long used mission to motivate employees. You could argue that NASA made it to the moon thanks to a purpose-led culture. What's new are the ways companies pursue the goal, and the tools and frameworks that help.

Who describes frameworks? Consulting companies. Consider this snippet from E&Y's website: "Our Purpose-Led Transformation methodology is an end-to-end approach for executing organization-wide strategic transformation. It is designed to be simple, agile and scalable to start at the essential core of leadership and quickly engage the entire organization. Multi-disciplinary skills and mindsets are blended with our client teams to achieve faster and better transformation outcomes."  

It takes effort for consulting company thought leaders to switch that style of writing off and switch on a more conversational tone. But remember, you have a voice. Combine it with your expertise—and watch the respect of readers and peers in your community grow.

One bonus hint: Twitter can help you become more conversational and concise in your writing. The character limit of a Tweet doesn't give you much room to connect with people. You need to get right to the point—entertain, inform, ask, whatever your goal for a Tweet. But don't try to wrap it in formal-ese, because you just don't have space.

 

Comments

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Reminds me of Orwell's fine example from Politics and the English Language, 1946.

"Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

 

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