How to Keep up with the Evolution of Written Business English
Wow! How written business English has evolved over the years and continues apace. No longer do we expect to inherit the style of yesteryear, but it does mean that the lines between professional and personal communication are increasingly blurred.
For instance, doesn’t this writing: 'Let me know your instructions at your earliest convenience' sound amazingly old-fashioned now?
As does this: 'Necessary steps are being taken in connection with the relevant documentation and it is to be hoped that these are now in order; your point about overpayments to the insurance company has been noted and, in addition, processes regarding policy renewals are being implemented as appropriate'.
Did you even persevere reading that one? These examples were, surprisingly, the sort of thing that even twenty-somethings wrote routinely as late as the 1990s. They often unquestioningly inherited the style of years gone by. Passive writing predominated. It was as though companies were hiding behind language rather than forging relationships.
The influence of the internet and new generations’ style
Things began to change with the burgeoning use of the internet and the increasing influence of younger generations to bring their own conversational style to the workplace. Informality crept in, bit by bit. Today’s casual style continued to take off, as other factors also came into play.
This shift led to companies in the UK and abroad calling me in as a trouble-shooter and trainer. They woke up to the pressing business need to check messages were saying what they meant them to say and that the 'new writing' developed relationships with customer bases. This needed to be balanced with keeping business objectives to the fore.
More vitality was also creeping into written business English for other reasons too.
As a passionate proponent of #WordPowerSkills (my effective business writing system, set out in my books published by Kogan Page), it was great to see a brilliant new focus: namely, it’s people not just processes that actually drive businesses.
Moving from passive to active
People hid less behind passives in their reports, emails and other documentation, not just their letters. We saw more of the active voice, using 'people' words. So, for example, savvy businesses preferred actively writing 'we’re doing everything to…' or 'leave this with me and I’ll get back to you' over the (annoyingly) passive 'necessary steps are being taken to…'.
It’s a huge step forward for people to own what they say and write. And let’s not forget this also boosts writers’ ability to make their personal mark, which is a great transferable career skill when we’re just about all writers now.
This growing awareness was boosted by initiatives such as the Investors in People standard (a UK Government initiative) which many companies began to subscribe to. The Standard sets out the criteria for high performance through people. It's a simple framework to benchmark the effectiveness of leadership and management practices in any organization.
Once you draw up this new focus on people proud to take ownership of what they do, this will naturally involve the way they communicate including their writing. Proud, active words such as ‘I’ and ‘we’ suddenly appeared centre-stage - even in what was considered traditional report writing.
A company that would previously have introduced a report in a passive style: 'It was considered that it would be a good idea to use the Investors in People Standard (and so on)’ could now see it might work better for the purpose (that is putting people first) and also read far easier to write on the lines: 'We wanted to use the Investors in People standard and looked upon this to provide a perfect vehicle to help drive these changes and give the company focus as to what ‘Investing in Our People’ meant. This was the beginning of our journey’.
The very notion of writing about a company journey - and also, by implication, a career journey - was quite a new development that we certainly see everywhere today. But that’s not all that changed.
How to best convey informality in written business English today?
Dispersed workplaces and teams in the hybrid workplace highlight the need to adapt our hugely important written communication. Business writing continues to evolve as ‘the new talking’.
The days of the informal chat around the office water cooler are fewer. But understandably people still have that need for social interaction in the communication they do have. Increasingly, this is via the written word.
This doesn’t mean it should be a chat that leads nowhere. Business English writing still has to have a purpose and be instrumental in getting the desired outcome and performance results. And of course, writing can be recorded for posterity even when we think it’s ‘off the record’ as far as we had intended. So yes, it may be more informal now but only up to a point.
Here’s another strand: today readers expect a good experience. Informality also has to be underpinned by manners, accuracy and personal and corporate professionalism. It helps to think about your readers’ likely reactions to any and all aspects of your written messages in this respect.
Know your audience
Maybe you’ve been told not to use cliched language (like 'hope you are well'), but wonder what you should use to remain polite?
Well, I suggest you start to analyze what your target audience is writing to you. Mirroring (up to a point at least) can be a great way forward. It sits well with today’s expectation that we customize our messages as far as is practicable – and create that good reader experience I’ve alluded to.
For example, if someone writes 'I hope you’re having a good week', it’s good to reply briefly to that - and probably use it for them another time.
That said, some recipients would far prefer to get straight down to business. Tune in to their needs too. If they’re stressed by littered in-trays, every line that’s unnecessary won’t help them. Be personable but don’t be overly flowery or have unrealistic expectations of how much time they can give you.
So I can’t prescribe what you do. But great advice is to discuss this with colleagues; ask the teams they deal with. Look at the discussion forums on LinkedIn for example, and you’ll get a great feel for the level of formality v informality that works in today’s workplace.
These discussions and your own tuning in should help you gauge: are there noticeable cultural or gender differences in the way your target audience write?
A ‘medium level of informality’ may best stand the test of time
My research tells me that this path can work best. Just as we’ve largely ditched the wordiness and stilted expressions of yesteryear, we also need to assess which of today’s words and tone are unlikely to last.
For example: 'Shall we run with this?’ may last the test of time better (and meet widespread reader acceptance across sectors, borders and generations) than 'Heyyyy you cool with this?’
Definitely come over as friendly where you can - because terseness definitely seems to irritate most people. And friendliness can be as simple as mentioning someone’s name in the salutation, like 'Hi (name)’ or 'Dear (name)’ and signing off 'Regards’ instead of 'Kind Regards’ or the increasingly favoured 'Best Wishes’.
Email vs. instant messaging: The changing face of informality
The evolution of written business English continues across traditional and emerging platforms. In fact, it’s apparent that email is becoming increasingly regarded as the 'new traditional’, somewhat formal writing, over the really informal style permeating the newer digital channels.
So what are the different language dynamics of email vs instant messaging (IM) as in Teams, Slack etc.?
Most companies have some sort of guidance in place for email. There tends to be some sort of due process for how employees write. This includes:
- Some sort of structure
- Starting with a headline (preferably a good, accurate signposting technique)
- A (hopefully personable, personalized) salutation
- A body of text with context
- An identifiable ending
- A spelling and grammar check, hopefully built in
- A clear audit trail and contributors that are easily identifiable.
Although there can be a level of informality, employers are generally keen to stress that ‘loose’ language (sometimes starting as banter) could lead to litigation in specific areas such as equality, personal data leaks or harassment, to name just a few.
Now when it comes to instant messaging, this largely built-in structure disappears. Short chatty or terse messages appear, often without context, often without sequential organization and without discernible guidelines as to who does what next.
Yes, there are organizational tools available - but the stream-of-consciousness manner of communicating does mean that people can often lower their guard, and the power dynamics can shift. Writers at every level in an organization can more easily appear on an equal footing. Younger entrants to the workplace can actually hold new power because they can be better versed in these modes and more attuned to the changing patterns in punctuation – and attendant meaning.
This emergent style of writing can manifest a breakdown in discernible power dynamics - not to mention proliferation in ‘unfettered chat’ as a default, possibly unintended, mode.
Written business English is a journey
You’ll have seen in this article that:
- At any given time, a snapshot of each style companies use over the years would have seemed exactly right for purpose at that time. 'Enclosed herewith are the documents that are in order’ didn’t seem old-fashioned when writer zero coined it. But it is now. So, on the same basis, we need to assess whether today’s instant messaging style for the same information: 'Heyyyy these docs k?’ will also stay current over time
- It’s only when we look at things in perspective, over years, that we see what styles and terminology need to change - but also which do seem to stand the test of time best
- Why not take a moment to think about the way you write at work today? Not just you as an individual, but as an organization too. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve done that
- Is there a Eureka moment? If so, you’ve become the style detective I want you to be. I don’t want to prescribe how you write – the whole point is for you to look at things for yourself once you understand the principles behind great business writing
- So how could you (or your colleagues) use more ‘people’ words and active expressions?
- It’ll be in your career interests to jot down what you could change - and what you suggest could be changed.
Take ‘the boring’ out of business writing and enjoy the journey!