When it comes to advice on how to write well, there’s plenty of it out there.
In fact, I just stopped typing to do a quick Google search and got back over 526,000,000 results on the subject.
Some of the common ones include be clear, be concise and pay attention to your grammar. Others include sticking to the active tense, focusing on one idea per paragraph and doing it every day – and generally you can’t argue with any of that.
Another popular piece of advice is: write as you speak.
Now this is one plenty of people argue about. You’ve got advocates on both ends of the spectrum, from writers to marketers, putting in their two bobs worth about why it is or isn’t good counsel.
So, time to put in mine.
The reality of the spoken word
The first thing it makes sense to consider is: how do we speak?
While there will be the odd intellectual who speaks with unfaltering eloquence, if most of us recorded ourselves in conversation and transcribed what we said, the outcome won’t exactly be the works of Shakespeare; in fact, it would most likely be pretty awful writing.
The reality is that everyday speech is messy. It’s littered with ums and pauses and, um, repetition. We go off on tangents, we don’t explain things in detail or clarify what we mean and generally we aren’t too concerned about the structure of what we’re saying, as long as we get the message across.
When taken literally then, this piece of advice actually sucks.
But, it’s not actually supposed to be taken literally – it’s not about mimicking every irregular nuance of speech. Instead, it’s about approaching the written word as you would a conversation – something we don’t typically do.
Formal language lacks personality
Generally when we write something, especially in a business context, we slip into formal mode. We forget that even though the format is professional, the person reading it at the other end is still a person. We start putting on our written airs and graces, elongating our sentences and using posh words, all in an attempt to sound competent.
Ultimately, however, what we end up doing is alienating and, in many instances, downright boring the audience. Just think about the last time you were delightfully engaged with a legal document or the contents of an annual report?
By attempting to sound smart, formal business-type writing typically ends up sounding stilted and standoffish; it starts to lack natural flow, charisma and personality. Except, maybe, the personality of someone you wouldn’t want to invite to your next dinner party.
Such writing can not only come across as unfriendly but, by incorporating far too much flouncy language and an unnecessary amount of industry jargon, it can actually confuse the message and the reader.
Conversation forms connection
Put simply, if writing isn’t engaging to read and easy to read, people simply won’t get it and won’t connect with it – or the person or business behind it – which kind of defeats the purpose of communicating in the first place.
This is where the conversational approach comes in.
Conversations are, by their very nature, an effective form of communication. Why? Because we talk to the person directly; we use simple, everyday language; we share stories; and we try our hardest to get along – to find common ground.
When we speak we are informal, we don’t worry about the constructions of language or the rules of the business or industry. We just talk, person-to-person, on the same level (in an ideal world at least) and this is where relationships begin.
So the advice, and what ‘write as you speak’ is essentially trying to say is, follow this same approach in your writing. Forget ‘poshing it up’ because that’s what you learned at school or what you’ve got used to in business, instead kept you writing clear, friendly and relatable.
Applying the advice
Great, you might be thinking, but how do I apply it?
Here’s a tip.
Next time you’ve got to write something, whether it’s a business email, a report, some sales copy or some content for your website, imagine you are sat across from your reader and engaging in a conversation. Now start writing.
Calling the person ‘the applicant’ or ‘the customer’ in this context just sounds weird. If you were referring to them in a real spoken conversation you’d call them ‘you’, so do the same in your writing. In addition, using lots of jargon and fancy words also will also make you sound a bit aloof and unfriendly, so don’t do it.
Instead simply put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) and let what you’re trying to say come out as you would if you were speaking to someone. Even better, inject a little you into it, whether that’s yourself or your company. While the end result might be a little unpolished, that’s okay – you can tidy it up through editing.
Ultimately, people prefer everyday language. So forget the stiff words, take the clear, friendly and conversational ‘write as you speak’ approach.
Quality writing isn’t about sounding fancy, it’s speaking to the reader as you would face-to-face.