Most of us learned to write at school, where we were taught to use a fairly formal style. Correct grammar, correct spelling, correct punctuation – there were rules, and there were exceptions, and that was that. You didn’t argue for fear of getting a ‘must do better’ note in the margin of your homework.
Some of us went on to learn other types of writing – fiction, poetry, journalism, copywriting – and with them different styles. As professional writers we learned to use more expressive language, a more conversational tone, to write with an audience in mind.
For many leaders in business, however, that formal style from school stuck around. Not quite academic writing but nevertheless dry, impersonal, often overly complex and difficult to read. And today, that’s no longer always appropriate.
Language is not static. It evolves as society does. New words are added to the dictionary and old ones go out of fashion. Even rules of grammar shift.
In the past, business communication always erred towards more formal language but there’s no doubt that’s been changing gradually over the last decade or two. Now that virtually every business has a presence on social media, where communication has a deliberately human tone, we’ve remembered that even in B2B, brands have to talk to people as people.
Informal, conversational writing is effective because it feels more personal. As a result, we’re more likely to be drawn in by it and act on it. It’s persuasive in a way that formal writing usually isn’t. Just think about which one you’d rather engage with – a T&Cs document or an email from a friend.
So how do you go about making your writing more informal if it’s not your natural style? Here are our tips for improving your business writing abilities.
One thing you’ll notice if you listen to actual conversations is that we use a lot more contractions when we’re talking than we do when we’re writing.
A contraction is when you literally ‘contract’ or shorten a word or phrase by leaving out one or more letters and replacing them with an apostrophe. So can’t is the contraction of cannot and it’s is the contraction of it is.
The simple act of using more contractions in your writing will increase the conversational tone and reduce formality in a subtle and business-appropriate way.
Clear communication is the goal of any professional writer. Except a professional writer probably wouldn’t phrase that last sentence like that because it uses the passive voice.
Instead they’d write: every professional writer wants to communicate clearly. This uses the active voice, which makes it more energetic and engaging.
Here are a couple more examples:
Passive: Complex dosage instructions are often misunderstood by hospital patients.
Active: Hospital patients often misunderstand complex dosage instructions.
Passive: The waterfall development model is rarely used in startups these days.
Active: Startups rarely use the waterfall development model these days.
Because we’re more likely to use active voice in natural conversation, using it in most types of business writing will create a more engaging and readable tone.
The difference between ‘I wish to write in a more informal way’ and ‘I want to write in a more informal way’ is small but powerful.
A key element for impacting formality in any sentence is the choice of vocabulary. The difference between ‘I wish to write in a more informal way’ and ‘I want to write in a more informal way’ is small but powerful.
So the first thing to do is to strip out any words or phrases that are too old-fashioned. Using ‘thrice’ when you could say ‘three times’ is unnecessarily formal. Ditto ‘endeavour’ instead of ‘try’ or ‘make your acquaintance’ instead of ‘meet you’.
And you can go a step further. There are plenty of words that we use in business writing almost without thinking, which could be replaced with more informal language. ‘Require’ could become ‘need’. ‘Request’ could become ‘ask’.
If there are two choices, go for the simpler option – the one you’d most naturally use in conversation. Not only does this make your business writing more informal, it also makes complex ideas easier to grasp at a glance.
Formal writing follows formal grammar rules. Natural conversation usually doesn’t. So by relaxing the rules of grammar, your writing will inevitably come across as more informal.
This doesn’t mean you should start making up your own rules. But don’t be afraid to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, or end a sentence with a preposition if you want to. The last sentence you read did both of these things, and it didn’t feel too casual, did it?
If you look back at the last sentence in the previous paragraph, you’ll see an example of a rhetorical question, which is something we use a fair bit in casual conversation.
Adding one or two into your writing can make it feel more personal and conversation. After all, if the author of an article asks you a rhetorical question, you feel like they’re talking directly to you, right? Just don’t put too many in or you’ll end up sounding like a broken record.
Those writing with a formal tone tend to use not only big words but also long, convoluted sentences and complex sentence structures. Shorter sentences, on the other hand, make your writing more informal. They also make it easier for your reader to quickly grasp the meaning of what you’re communicating.
You can even use sentence fragments on occasion. Like this one. Or this. Like all rule breaking, just make sure you’re not overdoing it.
Another way to make writing feel more conversational is to add a parenthesis. This is a word or phrase that is inserted into a sentence in rounded brackets (fyi, these are also called parenthese), almost like an afterthought.
Of course, every organisation is different and there are many types of business writing. You’ll need to judge what is appropriate in your business context. Official letters might need a more formal style whereas day-to-day client communication might take a more informal style. Social media posts are likely to be more chatty than strategic business reports.
That’s where brand tone of voice guidelines or other communication style guides come in handy, giving everyone a framework against which to benchmark whether something is too formal or too informal. These guidelines should set out information about your target audience and how best to communicate with each sub-group.
As a general rule though, if you’re aiming for professional writing – even if you’re going for a relaxed, human tone of voice – it’s best to avoid swearing, slang terms or text speak like ‘lol’ unless you’re doing it deliberately to make a point. Likewise be careful to avoid spelling mistakes and other careless typos.
As with any creative subject, you need to know what the rules are, when you can break them and what effect breaking them will have.
Also remember that it’s not all or nothing. You don’t have to choose between academic writing and the language you’d use in everyday conversation with your mates. There are degrees of formality and you can dial your writing up or down depending on the circumstance. Just take a look at these three sentences:
If you want to know whether your writing has a conversational tone or not, try reading it out loud. If you feel silly or stuffy, there’s a chance you need to take a more informal approach with your writing style. The phrases that don’t sound natural out loud are the ones to work on.For more business writing tips, follow us on social or subscribe to The Right Words to get a fortnightly dose of creative ideas, content marketing advice and more.
As a founder or in-house marketer, choosing which marketing tactics to focus on is no doubt something of a challenge. There are so many options! Each one has its merits. But will it be the right choice for your business?
In today’s post we’re looking at blogging and trying to answer the question, “When is blogging most effective for business?” Because although there are many benefits of blogging for virtually any business, there are some situations that will benefit from a blog in particular.
If you’re buying a pint of milk, there’s a good chance you won’t think all that hard about it. You’ll nip into the nearest shop, decide between skimmed, semi skimmed or whole milk, pick the bottle size you want and that’s that.
If, however, you’re thinking about buying a new laptop – or car seat for your newborn, or choosing a building company for an extension – you’re likely to spend much more time on the decision-making process.
“The more considered a purchase someone is making, the more effective a blog can be in providing the information they need to make a good decision.”
Ditto in the B2B world. As a marketing manager, you might spend a couple of hundred pounds on merch for an event without worrying too much about it. But if you’re taking on a new copywriting agency (or design agency or SEO agency), you’ll want to do a lot more research.
The more expensive a purchase is, or the more critical it is to get that decision right (remember the newborn’s car seat), the more considered it will be. And the more considered a purchase someone is making, the more effective a blog can be in providing the information they need to make a good decision.
If a product or service is complex, your audience is likely to need more information in order to make a good buying decision than they would if the purchase were simpler. Blogging can be a useful way to deliver this information in bite size chunks that lead the reader along the buying journey from being stuck to making a purchase decision.
The important factor here is being clear about anything that your reader won’t understand. Explain the jargon. Explore the benefits. Look at options – which one would best suit which type of person or business? Remember, you need to be honest and provide as unbiased a view as possible in order to add genuine value.
Don’t be afraid to explain why your type of product or service may not be a good fit for someone. If they leave your blog post with a sense that you have provided good information, they may well recommend you to someone who is a good fit. The alternative is that you somehow twist their arm into choosing you and they end up unhappy, causing you more problems than the sale was worth.
If you’re in sales in a business that has a long sales cycle, you’ll know how tricky it can be to get the balance of staying on your prospect’s radar without bugging them. The longer that sales cycle is, the easier it is for them to get distracted somewhere along the way.
A blog can not only help lead those prospects from one stage of the buyer journey to the next but can give you an excuse to proactively get in touch.
Imagine you’ve met someone at a conference. They seemed interested in one of your products or services. You chatted, exchanged business cards and connected on LinkedIn. This is not the time to go in with a hard sell. Instead, sharing a relevant blog post – perhaps one that you know will help them with a challenge they mentioned – will demonstrate both your expertise and your desire to help them.
Ideally, you’ll want to create a blog post for each stage of the buying process so that you have a series you can send at appropriate times. A good place to start if you’re looking to equip your sales team is comparison posts that weigh your product or service against competing options, and objection busters that answer key questions your prospects are likely to have.
Blogging can take anywhere from 9 to 18 months to demonstrate a real return on investment, so you need to know that you’re not going to give up or have your budget pulled after three months.
Even in industries such as fashion and lifestyle, where products may be fairly simple, relatively low cost and purchased more on a whim than through serious consideration, blogging can still be used to build a brand community. A number of brands do this very well, for example Fat Face, Fjallraven and our clients Tom & Teddy.
Community building blogs usually feel a bit more like lifestyle magazine articles. They build atmosphere, inspire their readers, make them feel that they are part of something bigger. You can also include posts that showcase how to use your product or service to full effect, or case study based articles that demonstrate how others have benefited from them.
If you’re still reading, it’s probably because you’ve recognised one or more of the scenarios above and you’re feeling broadly more confident that blogging could add genuine value for your business. Now it’s time to look more closely at the specifics. Because to make blogging work, you have to put in the effort.
So ask yourself…
There’s no point bashing out a few hundred words and hoping they’ll stick. A blog needs to sit within a clear strategy, with a well defined audience and at least some idea of the outcomes you want it to deliver. You need to understand what part of the funnel you’re writing to, how you’re going to track results and plenty more besides.
Whether you’ll be in charge of writing the blog yourself or you’ll be managing the process – for example with the support of an internal copywriter or an external freelancer or copywriting agency – you’ll probably need support from other people in your organisation.
For example, if you’re creating bottom of funnel (BOFU) blog posts that are fairly sales oriented, you’ll want input from your sales team. If you’re heading down the thought leadership route, you’ll want to talk to your subject matter experts. After all, thought leadership needs more than good writing, it needs good thinking.
If these people aren’t likely to help, you’re going to be struggling from the start.
Blogging can absolutely be a great lead generation tool. But it tends not to generate instant results in the way that, for example, a Google Ads campaign might. Blogging can take anywhere from 9 to 18 months to demonstrate a real return on investment, so you need to know that you’re not going to give up or have your budget pulled after three months.
As with any marketing tactic, there’s no guarantee that a blog will generate the results you hope for. We don’t believe in promising a 10x on leads because there are just too many factors involved. But we do know that with the right strategy, blogging can make a huge impact.
Tom Riglar, Co-founder of app development agency, Morrow, has been working with us to produce thought leadership and sales blogs for the last year.
He says: “As experts, we really know our stuff but struggle to communicate that expertise to the outside world. Rin and her team have transformed the way we tell our story.
“Content marketing is a long term strategy but we’re already benefiting from an increase in the quantity and quality of leads, better brand awareness and a clearer focus on who our prospects are.”
Camiel Roex, their Head of Growth, said: “Organic visits are the most stable part of Blueheart’s acquisition funnel… RH&Co helped us generate massive results over a span of a few weeks, and that’s just from the increase in traffic on the blog.
“We can run a full content marketer’s job in one hour a week instead of 20 hours. And we don’t have to hire someone full-time, which is important for a startup.”
If you’d like to talk more about whether blogging is right for your business – and what type of blog will generate the best results – get in touch with us today.