In corporate comms, ditch the ‘we’ and make things personal

The editorial ‘we’ can seem distant or even untrustworthy, experts say, so why not make the potent ‘I’ to ‘you’ connection?

I was nervous when the top executive asked me to come into his office to talk about the message I’d written for his annual report. Although he was a new client, I’d felt comfortable interviewing him and confident I’d captured his engaging message and warm personality. But as I walked into his office, my eyes locked on the page in front of him: lots of words crossed off with thick black marker, as if he were redacting state secrets. As I sat down, he passed the paper across the desk and looked me in the eye. “Barb,” he stated. “This is a ‘we’ business.” On the ink-pocked page, he had covered up every instance of the word “I.” In the margin, in the same stubby marker, he had written “We!!!!!!!” He thought the use of “I” was so egocentric. The company, he insisted, was all about the customers, suppliers and employees. I understood the sentiment. From all the nice things I’d heard about him, I knew he was sincere. Besides, I don’t usually argue with strong opinions from confident executives. Easy to change. And he was happy with everything else. But as I drove back, I kept thinking about how he would have come across as more human to these customers, suppliers and employees if he had allowed me to ghost-write the annual report as “I” speaking to “you.” I’ve had similar conversations with many clients over the years. Old-school word stylists don’t feel comfortable budging from the traditional editorial “we.” Often content is intended to be an objective report from a faceless organization. But when people want to bond with other people, especially with anything that bears their signature, they need to communication as “I” to “you.” A Globe and Mail interview about the psychological impact of pronoun use, James W. Pennebaker, author of ” The Secret Life of Pronouns,” cited the example of Rudolph Giuliani. The former New York mayor appeared cold and distant when he used “we” before his heart attack, but as human and caring after switching to “I.” According to Pennebaker’s research, “we” is the voice of liars and politicians at war. He also found that people who use the same pronouns and other language preferences are more likely to be compatible. Hmmm. Another book to read and ponder. Thanks, Dr. Pennebaker, or should I call you Jim? More support for my position, expanded on in Write Like You Talk—Only Better, that you need to write as “I” to “you” and with the same words and style as the person you want to connect with. And more reasons why I should get more assertive with the next well-intentioned client who wants me to write as “we.” What do you think? Barb Sawyers combines her love of writing and talking in her ebook Write like you talk—only better—coming soon in print and for e-readers; blog; workshops; and communication services for business and nonprofit clients.

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