Some of the things people writing in organisations worry about

working on reader perceptions

We’ve been running tone of voice training workshops over the past couple of weeks. The teams we’ve been spending time with have been lovely – and they’ve asked some interesting questions.

Some were about perceptions of writing (or, what is my reader going to think about me and my organisation if I communicate like this?).

We weren’t surprised. We’ve heard these questions before – across different sectors, disciplines and organisations. So we thought we’d share our views on them:

My reader is an MP/Lord/VIP – surely they’re expecting formality?

We’re all busy. None of us has time to read overly long or complicated communications. And this is even more true for politicians, industry leaders and celebrities. Just because someone is important doesn’t mean that they’re expecting you to act (or communicate) like an Edwardian butler. Instead, they’ll thank you for getting to the point, explaining things clearly and showing what needs to happen next.

Won’t my reader think I’m an idiot if I start a sentence with a conjunction?

Many of us were taught in school that it wasn’t acceptable to start a sentence with a word like and, but or because. The thing with this rule, however, is that it’s arbitrary. Grammar is simply a study of the way we structure and use words so that they make sense. Which means that if a sentence (whether it starts with “and” or any other word) makes sense, it’s grammatically correct. It’s why it was OK for the word “and” to start so many verses in the King James Bible version of Genesis, which was written over 400 years ago.

But what if your readers don’t know this and only know that their teachers told them not to do it? Well here’s the thing: If you start the odd sentence with a conjunction, they won’t even notice. They’ll be too busy gleaning information from your text. The Economist starts odd sentences with conjunctions because it helps them to convey complex information rapidly. No-one thinks: “Tut tut! Those illiterates at The Economist!” They simply don’t notice because they’re so wrapped up in the stories. And The Economist’s stories are easy to follow precisely because they’re flexible with their language – allowing complex information to land straightforwardly in your brain.

The person who wrote a letter to me used formal language, so shouldn’t I use it back?

Mirroring was a sales technique that became popular in the automotive industry in the last century. It said that if a customer had certain speech patterns or mannerisms that you should mirror them back, effectively imitating them. The idea was that if a customer thought you were “speaking their language” they’d be more likely to trust you and you’d be more likely to make a sale.

Then for a while the practice was taught to customer services teams writing letters to customers. The idea is that if your customer writes to you in a really formal way, you mirror that back to them. And if their writing style is more relaxed, you mirror that back to them too. We strongly discourage our clients from using this approach – and these are the reasons why:

  1. Mirroring a tone is difficult. We could probably do it, because we spend all our working hours creating and writing in different tones. But we’ve spent a lot of time copywriting in brand agencies and in Wordtree to build the skills to do it. It’s unlikely that your customer services teams will have had this same experience.
  2. Trust is important – and one of the ways you can encourage people to trust your organisation is to be consistent. If you’re mirroring, you can’t be consistent.
  3. Building a brand identity requires consistency too. Mirroring won’t help with this.
  4. Mirroring can be creepy. You have to be incredibly good at it to be able to pull it off without looking like you’re making fun of the person you’re doing it to.
  5. Where do you draw the line with it? If someone’s email to you is full of spelling mistakes and other errors, do you mirror this back to them?

Isn’t my reader silently judging my communications?

Probably not. The thing about writing, though, is we all learn to do it in situations where our reader really is judging us. At school and university, teachers and lecturers gives us grades based on the quality of our work. Even if we enter writing professions like journalism, PR and marketing, there’s always an editor, a line manager or a client judging what they like and dislike. So we associate writing with red pen and tracked changes – and perhaps a slight sense of dread as we hand our work over.

Yet for the majority of people reading your communications, all they want to get to is the information that it contains. So if you make this quick and easy to access, your typical reader isn’t going to waste time evaluating your choice of vocabulary and the ways you’ve used bullet points. Typically, they’ll only do this if you make it difficult for them to get to the information they need.

As ever, if you’d like to discuss your approach to communications, you know where we are. And if you’d like to learn more about how we approach tone of voice training, have a look at our FAQs.