Guest Blog: Be professional not formal

When you’re writing something really important, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘going formal’.

Stay personal and professional for better results.

 

If there’s a lot riding on what you’re about to write, or if you need to communicate something complex or tough, some nerves are understandable. But too often in business and public service, this anxiety turns into words that are cold, stiff, distant and unhelpful – the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Even the best people can suddenly sound uptight, uneasy, aloof and over-deferential, which robs their writing of its punch and persuasiveness.

 

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This widespread writing habit stems from a very common misunderstanding about the difference between being formal and being professional. Of course some languages have alternative voices for use in formal and non-formal settings, but English is a bit trickier.

A glance at the dictionary confirms how different these two things are. Being formal is about being orthodox, fixed and official – where form squeezes out spirit. Being professional though is about competence, confidence and assuredness. Very few people or organisations would consciously choose the former, and most aspire to the latter, so what’s going wrong?

In many workplaces there’s an unspoken but powerful and insidious culture, which decrees that the more important or high level something is, the more clinical, clipped and conventional the communication becomes.  Sadly, it’s a recipe for long, elaborate and ritualistic writing that fails to convince and doesn’t do the writer or their employer justice. Whether this is just a hangover from outdated working practices or a stubborn legacy of education, it’s certainly a problem.

This widespread writing habit stems from a very common misunderstanding about the difference between being formal and being professional. Of course some languages have alternative voices for use in formal and non-formal settings, but English is a bit trickier.

But avoiding this pitfall is easy – you just need to trust your natural communication skills and all the accumulated talent and experience that make you the right person to be doing this writing. Sidestep the formal and focus on being professional – letting your readers feel the full force of your knowledge, authority, expertise and good judgement. Imagine you’re saying what you want to impart, face-to-face and direct to the person in front of you.

The most influential and effective writing comes from people who know their topic, and who give themselves permission to share their gifts in a relaxed, personal way that sounds like them.

That’s real professionalism, which gets things done and is something to be proud of.

 

If you or your team need help to dress down your style or deformalise your message, please contact us. We can help.

 


 

 

ian hembrow

Ian Hembrow is a communications consultant with an eye for extreme clarity and brevity.

With a professional background in social housing and community investment, Ian helps organisations and individuals to think, write and work more effectively. He has trained and coached many hundreds of people in the public, private and voluntary sectors to master the art of punchy, plain language that makes things happen.

He’s an associate with Plain Language Commission and a qualified features journalist, who writes for The Guardian online, The Oldie, Oxfordshire Limited Edition and a range of housing and community trade titles.