Stop me if you’ve read this one before:
As an organization, all employees have demonstrated success in every facet of our strategic vision, settling for nothing less than the highest standard of operational quality, and for that reason, you deserve to be praised for your continued focus on improvement.
That’s a typical corporate-speak memo. It’s not bad. It’s grammatically correct and sticks to a clear message.
If you manage internal communications for a company, and you’re tasked with crafting a congratulatory note to employees, this is probably close to what you’d write. I know it’s what I’d write—because I did.
That’s from an article I wrote last year for our internal newsletter. It checked all the boxes, and it got management approval. The problem is that it’s boring.
What’s wrong with boring? Official company messages aren’t required to be anything more than factual. However, boring messages are easily ignored. The onus is on communicators to bridge the divide between how we communicate “officially” and how we communicate “naturally.”
How we communicate outside of work
Imagine your friend Meghan invited everyone to a party at her house—everyone except you. Here’s the text Meghan sends you that night:
BRANDON OMG I AM SO SO SO SORRY! I thought you were on that group text and just found out that you weren’t! I feel sooooooo bad! Grab an Uber and I’ll pay for it!
That’s terrible writing, right? Messages like these are the reason why people say texting is destroying the English language. Any of us could look at that message and rightfully think the same thing, but read it again.
Notice how you react to that message. You can’t help but empathize with Meghan and feel her regret. She is truly sorry, and she’s being completely genuine. As the receiver of that message, I understand how she feels.
Compare your reaction to that message with this alternative:
Brandon, I am sorry. I thought you were on that group text and just found out that you weren’t. I feel so bad. Grab an Uber, and I’ll pay for it for you.
That’s the exact same message, just without all the extra punctuation (and aggressive, all-caps wording). It’s better grammar and looks much nicer, but it’s a bit dry and lifeless. The first text reads like a friend talking to a friend. The second reads like a memo between business associates. What’s more, it sounds like it might even be a second or third draft. The sincerity is completely gone.
This example comes from Georgetown University professors Deborah Tannen and Anna Marie Trestor. They conducted a study using a similar message and reached the same conclusion: Repeated characters and extra punctuation (“text speak”) more effectively conveyed tone and sincerity.
That’s not to say we communicators should start littering our prose with emoji and exclamation points, but there is an underlying lesson.
The evolution of communication
Many will lament the degradation of language, but what we’re seeing is an evolution of communication. Our written communications, thanks to technology, are evolving to better convey more information. We’re no longer just communicating words; we’re also communicating a tone of voice.
If you’re a living, breathing human being, then you’re reading words with a tone of voice in your head. That imaginary tone is influenced by sentence structure. Even now as you’re reading this, your brain is busy filling in the nuances of a human voice.
When we ignore tone in our writing—when we write too formally—we’re inadvertently removing sincerity and emotion from our message. Without sincerity and emotion, our messages fall flat—or they’re easily misinterpreted. That’s exactly what corporate communicators are trying to avoid.
A new approach to corporate writing
No, don’t randomly insert extra exclamation points into your CEO’s employee letter. Instead, take a step back from the message, and think about what it would sound like if it were written the way he or she speaks in conversation.
Pare down complicated sentences. Get rid of unnecessary buzzwords, adjectives and adverbs, and stop worrying about what sounds “professional.” Focus on what’s real.
True authenticity conveys emotion and sincerity, and you get authenticity by writing the way we speak. Do you know anyone who speaks like a corporate memo?
Let’s go back to the opening example. Here’s how you could make it sound less robotic and more like it came from the mouth of an actual human being:
Great job! I’m thrilled with our progress.
Operations: nailed it.
Strategic vision: nailed it.
Continuous improvement: double nailed it.
It’s that easy. When you put more effort into your tone instead of your words, your audience will be more likely listen (and empathize).