PEOPLE tend to speak differently depending on who they’re talking to. Ask any American tourist who comes out with a brogue he never knew he had while visiting Ireland for the first time. It’s born out of a good instinct: the desire to connect with those we speak to. When you talk like your conversation partners – speeding up for motormouths, quieting down with whisperers – you signal that you want to meet them on their ground. Doing the opposite, emphasising your different accent, vocabulary or dialect, is a way of saying “We’re not the same, you and I.”
USE REAL ENGLISH, NOT BUSINESS-ESE
This matters, because though businesses are businesses, your employees, customers and suppliers are human beings. When you speak to them as a corporation, you convey the coldness of one business entity speaking to another. It doesn’t have to be this way. When the typical website breaks down, you’re greeted with: “Our servers are over capacity; please re-try your query later.” Rage city. Who cares about your servers?, thinks the user. But when the photo-sharing website Flickr breaks down, you can get a message reading: “Arrggh! Our tubes are clogged!” When the uploading tool isn’t working, it tells you: “Houston, we have a problem. None of your uploads made it to Flickr. This probably means there’s a problem with your internet connection. Please twiddle your cables and try again.” As annoying as a breakdown always is, this real, human language actually gives me a warm feeling towards the company.
CLEAR WORDS FOR CLEAR THOUGHT
Businesses compete in an arms-race of trendy jargon in which everyone is the loser: ideation, blue-sky thinking, thought leadership, solution. Since everyone is using these words, nobody gets a competitive advantage, and everyone sounds like a robot programmed to spew buzzwords. Neil Taylor, the creative director for the London-based language consultancy The Writer, says that such language conveys “we have no idea what we’re doing.” Our own style book at The Economist echoes that: “Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought.” Think about what really makes your business different. Hint: it isn’t that it offers “solutions”. When you know what makes you you, describe it in the plain language you’d use to explain it to your grandmother. Your customers will get it, and in the bargain they’ll see you as a real human being they’ll want to work with.
THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Gracious me, did I end that last sentence in a preposition? I sure did, as great writers have been doing in English for centuries, and as nearly everyone does in speech. Correct and precise writing is important; mistakes and sloppy English do not send a good message. But English is also unfortunately burdened with what some linguists call “zombie rules”, bans on the sentence-ending preposition and split infinitives especially. These were made up in the middle of English’s natural development, and have no place among English’s real rules. Get a good usage guide: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage separates the undead rules from the living. And Taylor has a recent book, Brilliant Business Writing, tailored for companies. The two next to each other on your shelf are a modest investment in reaching your customers by using language as real human beings do.
Robert Lane Greene writes for The Economist and is the author of You Are What You Speak, about language and identity. He recently introduced a speech by Neil Taylor at the Economist Conferences’ “Big Rethink’” which incorporated practical ideas on how businesses can innovate by using language.