Business Style & Tone

Any seasoned businessperson can recognize an unprofessional email or a professionally handled customer contact. It’s a little more difficult for a young professional to immediately recognize the look or strike just the right tone. It takes time to become familiar with an organization’s culture, and every customer relationship calls for a slightly different approach. At the same time, there are some consistent characteristics of communication in business situations.

Every organization of people-families, tribes, and businesses-work in much the same way. The key to becoming a professional is to realize that you are joining a business culture. The new citizen must start to follow the group's ways, prove him or herself able to understand the rules, and learn how to take part in the group's decision-making processes.

In many organizations, a formal joining process defines the membership. New members of a political party might sign a pledge, pay a fee, and immediately gain all the voting rights of membership. Other groups are more informal, such as book club whose members are simply those who show up. In these groups, a person might have to show up several times, bring refreshments, and get along well with the older members before helping select a book.

Business organizations fall in the middle. There is a formal hiring process and probably an employee badge to give you rights to enter the building or park in the employee lot. Entry into the decision-making process will be a slower process of building trust with other members of the group.

For more details about joining the organization and giving the right signals that let others know you're ready to participate, select Career Vision and Strategy from Organizational Awareness and First Impressions from Communication & Presentation Skills.

Many aspects of businesslike communication involve signals of respect and cooperation. You are not merely communicating about something; your communication must also show that you understand how the organization works.

Respectful Cooperation

There are unfortunate situations in any organization, but a defining characteristic of the contemporary business world is the emphasis on civility. In a competitive, global market, both customers and employees can easily move on. A healthy business requires an effective team, and businesslike communication helps to make that happen.

  • Respect each other's work. This involves respecting each other's time, energy or knowledge and calls for simple things like not interrupting each other as well as more complicated things like presenting ideas or information in a way that is most valuable or efficient for the other person's work.

  • Don't waste others' time. This is not just about playing or talking with those who should be working, although that's unacceptable too. The more subtle disrespect puts other's work below your own, expecting them to prioritize your work over theirs or do your job for you.

  • Be nice to everyone. Business relationships are, at some level, permanent. Even disgusting co-workers, hated bosses, and political enemies are going to remain in the company or industry. At some point in the future, they might hold the keys to your success. Respect and cooperation-or at least the communicative signals of respect and cooperation-are valuable insurance for the future relationship.

  • Ask nicely for things. Professional communication never demands behavior; businesslike communication invites cooperation. The focus is on meeting common goals. Even supervisors will typically use "request" language ("I'd appreciate having this by Thursday") rather than giving an order ("Send this by Thursday"). Emphasize the group by using "we" and "our" instead of "I" and "you" and talk about how your mutual needs can be met.

  • Stay open to others' ideas. Language can keep the door open to others' ideas. Businesslike language means not coming across as a "know it all" by using hedges ("data suggests"), soft modals ("would you mind", "may I") and qualifications with respect to the limits of personal opinion ("it seems to me that"). Professional communicators avoid absolutes ("are", "is") strong modals ("have to", "need to"), imperatives, challenging questions, confrontational statements, or condescending, insincere, or instructional statements (Rogers, Ho, Thomas, & Cheng, 2004).

  • Establish common ground. Communication should emphasize common goals, connections, and shared background. Don't assume others know you or your aims; be specific what it is you are trying to accomplish and how it fits in with what others are trying to accomplish. Never demand attention; invite customers or coworkers to find their own value in your contribution (Beaufort, 1999).

Status Markers

Newer employees who are communicating "up" the organizational hierarchy are expected acknowledge seniority, whether it comes from power, organizational responsibility, or expertise (Rogers, Ho, Thomas, & Cheng, 2004). The businesslike tone will depend on the relative status of the parties as well as the norms of the organization, but a professional will learn to hear-and use-the cues of his or her own organization.

  • Learn the hierarchy. An organizational chart can help visualize the hierarchy, but informal chains of command, cross-functional reporting, seniority, or demographic characteristics can confer status outside the formal reporting relationships. This is one area where a mentor can help sort things out.

  • Titles and salutations. Messages indicate the relative status of everyone involved with titles and salutations. The choice between sending a memo to full names and titles instead of to team nicknames says a great deal about the writer's relationship with the readers. Multiple recipients pay attention to the order in which their names appear, the top of the list generally conferring higher status.

Keep in mind, the salutation is not just a signal to the person addressed; the more important signal is to everyone else watching or reading. For example, a professional who uses his boss's first name in the office will be careful to address a memo with first and last name. In meetings with people from outside the office, he would call his boss "Mr. Last Name" to signal that everyone should show the boss respect.

The person with higher status always has the option of setting the proper tone. People are typically introduced formally ("I'd like you to meet Mr. Smith"), but it is up to the higher status person to offer a less formal relationship ("Please call me John").

Professional respect is a mutual relationship. Use "Mr." or "Ms." with a positive tone, never as though afraid of the person or uncomfortable with the sign of respect. Often employees will adopt an alternative title for a superior, calling the boss neither Mr. Gates or Bill, but "Chief" or "Boss" or "Mr. G." Sometimes a group will adopt nicknames that acknowledge a special talent or organizational responsibility, calling a respected colleague "network dude" or "safety man."

Organizational Context

Professionals realize that actions are valued and performed differently at various levels and sections of the organization. Organizational status generally determines which perspective "wins" to guide the group's collective action. Even when there is a disagreement over a task's importance, simply refusing to fulfill the boss's request would be arrogant and unacceptable (Rogers, Ho, Thomas, & Cheng, 2004). Resolving these conflicts with respect is crucial for career success.

  • Don't ignore a request. Respectful questions, suggestions, and sometimes multiple responses can help someone see the value of an alternative course of action, but the first step is to engage. You must start the conversation.

  • Establish common ground. Be specific about your aims. Don't assume others know what you are trying to accomplish or how it fits in with what others are trying to accomplish. Articulate your connections, background, and common goals.

  • No means no. Once a decision has been tested and confirmed, continuing to argue becomes useless nagging. You'll only earn a reputation for being difficult and never get a chance to make positive changes.

  • Don't sabotage the project. Unless you are playing hardball politics, your work should always make your company (and your boss) look good. Even when you disagree with the goal of the project, demonstrate your best work.

  • Provide context. Every message begins with an introductory section that provides context and explains how to interpret and use the information that follows. When there is disagreement on a project, work hard to help the various stakeholders interpret and use the information productively.

Formality Levels

Businesslike communication is not overly formal. The marks of respect are important, but direct, clear communication is always the goal. Professionals learn not to confuse formality with respect, or to assume that informality increases clarity.

  • Bureaucratic language. Nearly any book on better business writing will begin with examples of bad writing: fancy words, passive voice, long sentences, and a patronizing tone that suggests it's the reader's job to keep up. Some bureaucratic language might be the fault of lawyers hoping for bulletproof documents, but most of the blame should probably go to writers who equate big words and long sentences with formal education and hope to gain respect by using them.

  • Conversational language. Most books on business communication will preach instead that professionals should stay conversational: direct sentences, first and second person, everyday words, and a warm tone that tries to establish rapport with the audience. Needless to say, a conversation with a respected person-a boss, grandmother, or priest-will be more formal than a conversation with a close friend. Even then, good relationships don't grow in conversations made up of highly formal, aloof phrases like "it is known that" (a href = "http://www.uni.edu/prp/references/">Rogers et al., 2004).

  • Business casual language. Communication between co-workers is informal but not sloppy, similar to attire that is somewhere between a suit and shorts. In formal communication with clients or shareholders, professionals use scrupulously correct language and follow document formats carefully. Internal conversations or emails exhibit colloquial language, creative punctuation, and personality, but they never fall into social language of shorts and flip-flops. Any business communication, even a short email to a colleague, should be clear, concise, and clean. Spelling and grammar errors are never professional, regardless of the situation.

Career success hinges on becoming part of the decision-making process. New employees begin with small parts, but taking a larger role requires responsiveness to the unstated rules about how things get decided. A community functions efficiently (and often effectively) when everyone abides by the same decision making rules.

Participation Rules

Rules vary across and between organizations, but there will always be unstated rules about who is allowed to talk to whom, who gets to tell others what to do, who has to listen, and who is listened to during a decision-making process.

In a small team, the rule might be that everyone should be involved in the decision. The employee who fails to speak up in meetings has failed to follow the rule. Others will probably ignore her, but worse, they will not see her as someone who is able to take on a larger role.

In larger groups, full participation can slow decisions down, and a smaller subgroup will typically take on the decision-making. It might be an executive team, an elected senate, or a good-old-boys network. Sometimes the group is determined for demographic reasons ("put the girls in charge of party planning"), geography ("the folks at the home office can figure out the details"), or chance ("first come; first served"). As an individual takes on the role-learning to speak, look, and act the part-he or she will begin to participate in the assigned decision-making.

As you might expect, there can be disagreements over participation. Lean organizations have learned that low-ranking front line employees have a crucial perspective for marketing decisions. Women and minorities now participate at all levels of many organizations. Such changes take time, however, and the new employee should pay close attention to the verbal and non-verbal communication signals of proper interaction with others.

Knowledge Rules

Any sort of decision requires that people eventually agree on what information is valuable, trustworthy, and important. Obviously, looking carefully at every bit of information available would take an infinite amount of time. Established (but often unstated) rules about what is important can speed up the process.

In general, business decisions are "data based," resulting in a rational, objective style of communication, but people sometimes disagree about the best data. One task force on employee benefits might look for empirical data, surveying employees to learn how much they spend on day care, health benefits, and dental services. A different task force could choose to use the experiences of human resources professionals in the area. A third task force might rely exclusively on its members' wide personal experience with benefits packages at multiple companies.

  • Clarify the rules. Because knowledge rules are unstated and sometimes variable, a new member of the group will probably have to ask a few questions. Knowledge is usually defined in terms of source ("You should use a focus group to get at the heart of this question"), quantity ("You'll need at least 1500 responses"), timeliness ("You can't look at just the most recent quarter"), and context ("It really only matters what the biggest customers think").

  • Format communication to support the rules. Acceptable communication formats are the ones that deliver the right information (Yates and Orlikowsk, 2002). If the supervisor values and expects detailed statistical information, a casual conversation will not come across as a knowledgeable report on the topic. If the team wants to understand a unique perspective, it might interpret those same statistics as an inability to create a knowledgeable response to the question.

  • Keep your eye on the goal. Information formats (called genre in writing classes) can become circular. The company develops a certain report format to present the information available in 1985. Now, the managers consider certain data important because the report calls for it. Be watchful that the normal information will achieve the desired results, but recognize that violating the expectations without an explanation can lead an audience to think you are uninformed or uncooperative (Beaufort, 1999; Bazerman 1994; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995).

Performance Rules

Human beings have a wide range of communication options: facial expressions, gestures, physical actions, jokes, stories, parables, essays, books, paintings, prayer, Morse code, American Sign Language, poetry, dance, and many more. A group can make decisions with any of them, but communities will recognize only a few as appropriate and effective.

Western culture puts a high value on interpersonal communication as the ideal method of decision-making, and most groups in the United States (including business groups) will simply assume that face-to-face conversation is the best way to make a decision, but the unstated rules in a specific situation can be a little more complicated.

  • Type of decision. Most groups will distinguish at least three kinds of decisions, and each might use a different (although often overlapping) set of performances. Face-to-face conversation works nearly any time, but private decisions might sometimes involve physical communication such as a kiss or a slap, artistic or aesthetic decisions might allow the use of stories, poetry, or intuition, and public decision-making will often limit communication to recordable formats.

  • Location of decision makers. Companies that conduct business around the globe have learned to make decisions without a single face-to-face conversation. A committee scattered around the country might set up a website, post a series of questionnaires, and vote on each of the possibilities without ever talking to each other. Considerations like technical difficulty, cost, speed, and storage features might all play a role in what the group finds acceptable as a decision-making method.

Polished Communication: Professional Expectations

Professional communication reflects high production standards and careful preparation to achieve a polished level of competence. To some extent, this level of professionalism simply reflects the amount of focused attention given to business communication. An email to a key client or a memo to a boss are important to a person's career, and the competent worker will take the time he or she needs to consider the goal, structure the content, and clarify the language. The average business document is reviewed by three different individuals before it is submitted in its finished form. With this much careful attention, documents are perfect in terms of both content and format.

Communication also represents a huge cost to a business. Meetings cost millions of dollars in staff time. Written documents are enormously expensive to create (Cover, 1995). The true costs of multiple phone calls or emails to get the right information probably can't be calculated. Clarity, predictability, and efficiency of communication reduce its costs in time, effort, and money.

Finally, much of the communication produced in a corporate environment is created by paid professionals who have been hired because they have particularly high levels of communication expertise. These writers, graphic artists, and media specialists set a standard of excellence that permeates the business culture. When advertisements or public relations messages go to thousands of customers at a cost in the millions of dollars, great care is taken with their production. Mundane memos or emails might not cost as much money, but their audience has come to expect the same level of professionalism with respect to language use.

Business English, whether in U.S., British or Indian dialect, is consistently and compulsively perfect with respect to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Although the style is often informal, there is no tolerance for error. Common tools like spell checkers and grammar checkers are used extensively, but there are many details that require human attention. In a professional environment, no documents--even simple emails--are sent without careful proofreading, and the most conservative rules of grammar or punctuation use are followed.

Some oral language errors tend to mark the speaker as "uneducated" or "lower class." Most listeners will notice non-standard verb use, a lack of subject-verb agreement, double negatives, and errors in subject-pronoun agreement (Hairston, 1981; Weaver, 1996). Be careful to avoid obvious mispronunciations like "off-ten" for "often" or "new-cue-lar" instead of "nuclear," which mark a person as unprofessional (Stoddard, 1998).

To some extent, professional language use is simply a function of education and social maturity. Every generation of teenagers has its own speech patterns, but the "beat" language of the fifties, the hippie lingo of the sixties and the eighties' Valley Girl cadences are not the language patterns of college-educated adults. A culture's language fads change, but business professionals avoid slang or speech patterns of the day.

Styles change somewhat, especially in marketing communication, but business communications are always well designed. The crisp, elegant, conservative look works as a visual complement to direct, concise businesslike language. As with language, the point is clarity. Businesslike design is never arbitrary, opaque, or artsy. Instead, use principles of proximity and alignment, in particular so that the visual design clarifies the meaning of a document.

The look emphasizes straight lines rather than curves, and strong vertical lines rather than a softer centered look. Business visuals tend to be simple and uncluttered-even minimalist-with just a few strong colors with balanced, carefully aligned images or graphics. Information is broken into manageable chunks, grouped in useful ways, and then positioned for easy understanding.

Companies hire professional designers for major projects, but any professional communicator should recognize some basic principles:

Unity

Visual design should set elements together to create relationships between parts and a sense of the whole (Penrose, 1997). Each part of a page, or each page in a larger document or presentation, should look like it belongs to all the rest of the parts. Creating a sense of unity provides a way to combine data visually and produce an understanding of relationships that otherwise would have been missed (Groade, n.d.).

Balance

Balance refers to the relative amount of "stuff" on either side of a centerline. Formal, symmetrical balance positions elements on either side of a horizontal or vertical centerline; the effect is pleasing but can become monotonous. Informal balance keeps the size of elements the same, but varies their placement on either side of a centerline. This adds interest but can create a sense of unease and/or clutter if done poorly. Heavy items and colors should 'ground' the scene rather than 'float' freely.

Balance includes both words and pictures and even the distribution of verbal to non-verbal information. Many written documents and most oral presentations will include a certain amount of visual information as well as text, and neither should overpower the other.

  • In a written document, for example, space devoted to figures should not exceed the space devoted to text. If an illustration, table, or graph needs more than a 1/2 page, place it on its own page or include as an appendix.

  • In an oral presentation, visuals should stay on the screen long enough to allow a complete discussion of the information being presented. If using a flip chart or white board, the speaker should balance the time writing words with the time spent focusing on the discussion.

Contrast

Contrast involves creating clear differences between various elements of a design. Contrast helps differentiate ideas, and it can draw interest by highlighting those differences. Create contrast with changes in text, color, size, or style. Changing from one typeface to another, for instance, will create contrast between two sections of text and cause a reader to perceive them as different from each other. Contrasts must be clear and noticeable; avoid small changes. Elements that are only similar-neither completely different nor exactly the same-can look like a sloppy mistake.

Repetition

Repeated visual elements color, shape, texture, spatial relationships, line thicknesses, sizes can be used to develop organization of the information. Repetition across multiple pages or slides will also strengthen the unity among various parts of the communication. Some speakers swear by color-coordinating their outfits with the color scheme of their slides, a form of repetition that audiences find appealing as well.

Alignment

Perhaps the most important design element involves the visual alignment of elements. Every element on the page should have some visual connection with another element on the page, avoiding the sense that anything is "floating" freely in visual space. In most business documents, this means lining up all elements along strong horizontal or vertical lines. Anyone with a practiced eye for business documents will quickly notice anything that "doesn't line up."

Proximity

Items relating to each other should be grouped together. This helps to organize the information, providing white space that creates boundaries between categories of data (Williams, 1994). While this seems obvious, it reflects such a deeply ingrained cognitive process that it can sometimes be hard to see as an organizational tool. Instead, designers will sometimes talk about creating a page that is "clean" or "uncluttered," referring to the sense that a few clusters of information are easier to apprehend than a page with many equal elements. The key is to realize that each of the visual clusters should represent some kind of conceptual category as well.

Conservative means adult, established, and highly credible. The conservative business look is also upscale pinstripe suits, solid oak boardrooms, and leather. The look trends toward traditional elements with design that is rooted in classical principles of unity and balance: elegant and simple rather than jarring or flashy (Heimes, 1997).

This conservatism extends into any kind of communication, calling for understated, elegant choices on report covers as well as understated, elegant choices of suits and dresses. (For more on professional attire, select First Impressions under the Communication and Presentation Skills tab at the right.) In presentations, meetings, and conversation, the executive presence can mean projecting a self-confident attitude. (See the section on Projecting Confidence, also under Communication and Presentation Skills.)

More than just appearance and demeanor, however, the style also includes language that signals a serious, dynamic, and enthusiastic attitude. An executive presence instills confidence in others.

Serious: Focused on Work

The professional is friendly, cooperative, and respectful of others, but none of this detracts from a clear focus on the task. The person with the executive presence might not be the highest-ranking person in the room. Presence gives the signal that playtime is over, and it's time to get down to business.

Much of the message is non-verbal, including attire and self-confident demeanor. Little things add up: the kind of portfolio you carry (sensible and useful, perhaps even elegant), the things you post on your cubicle (pragmatic and work centered), the eye contact you make when discussing work-related topics, the inattention to idle chit-chat.

The rest of the message comes largely from an absence of extraneous, unrelated content. An email, for example, will focus on the task, uninterrupted by a quote of the day, advertising, or cute graphics (Gregory, 2002). Nor does a serious executive use cutesy signoffs (bfn, ttfn, ttys) or foreign goodbyes - hasta, ciao, abrazos. Pragmatic business people sign their real names and get on with business (Kelley, 1999).

Dynamic: A Sense of Urgency

One of the more difficult aspects of the businesslike style is communicating a sense of urgency - the dynamic attention to getting a job done. Even though the job might require patient attention to details or careful consideration of risks and pitfalls, the dynamic professional focuses on the positive outcome. Dwelling on the difficulties can sound like laziness, resistance, or fear. Responsive, active communication sends the message that you are able and willing to solve difficulties and overcome barriers.

  • Responsiveness is timely. Professionals typically respond to requests within a few hours and often within a few minutes. Leaving any communication unanswered for more than 24 hours sends a non-responsive message.

  • Responsiveness thinks ahead. Every response should be complete and pro-active. Doing just as asked is never enough. If you can anticipate something else the person needs, provide it. Letting someone come back to you three times to get all the information, when you knew what he or she really needed in the first place is highly unprofessional communication in a business environment.

  • Responsiveness involves risk. The dynamic professional makes a commitment and shows a willingness to risk personal assets for the good of the group. Personal assets include time, money, and personal reputation to support an action he or she advocates. The dynamic professional is thus the one who is willing to voice an opinion in a meeting or stand up for an unpopular decision.

Enthusiastic: Working with a Smile

Serious attention to work does not imply that a person is not happy. Enthusiasm for the job is an important part of professionalism. If you are happy and self-confident, this is an easy message to convey. Even if you're not so sure, it's possible to send signals of enthusiasm.

  • Smile. Not a smirk or a permanent fake smile, but spend most of the day with a pleasant expression. There are times when empathy or concern requires a frown or grimaces, but for the normal course of work, the non-verbal message ought to convey positive regard for the work and the organization.

  • No bad days. They exist, but don't let on to any but the very closest friends. The workplace is not the proper location to work out issues, gain psychological closure, or express bottled up emotions. Civility and good manners create a pleasant work atmosphere so that individuals can escape the stresses that keep them from being productive.

Whether it's a document, a presentation, or a conversation, businesslike communication gets to the point quickly and clearly. Unlike social conversation, where communication is valued for its own sake, businesslike messages aim for efficiency. In fact, businesslike communication can seem too abrupt, too detailed, and too formal in social situations.

In order to create a goal-focused message, the writer or speaker will take three steps:

Business tasks can be very complex, and often several people will use the information from a single report or presentation. The communicator must create a message that accomplishes his own task as well as allowing each of its users to accomplish theirs. An effective communicator will create a message that is responsive to all the various goals of each and every potential audience. This requires a message that includes enough information that each of these potential audiences can accomplish its own specific task.

Structure the message for efficient task completion

The most efficient message is one that provides all the information its user needs, in the order it will be needed. In many situations, the organizational structure is dictated by the work itself, and communication will be formatted to follow that work flow.

If there is no other structure to follow, a good communicator will think in terms of the standard steps of any task and organize the message in three parts: a statement of the task, the information required to do that task, and a clear, specific action step.

  • Describing the Task: Tips for Success

The task definition can take the form of a first sentence in a phone call or voice mail, the first paragraph of a memo or email, or the first few minutes of a formal presentation. These first few words or sentences are thus too important to waste on introductory stories, previews, or attempts to convince the other person that he or she should listen. In a business context, communication is assumed to be relevant to some task, and audiences expect to be guided quickly toward the right task context so they can easily understand the rest of the message. When tasks are more complicated, poor communication skills can create all sorts of problems. Here are a few tips.

  • Providing Information: Tips for Success

Once the purpose of the communication is understood by all participants, the second part of the message provides the reader or listener with the information, ideas or issues necessary to accomplish that purpose. Selecting the content and structure of the information creates the heart of any message. Especially in jobs that are part of the "information economy," this is where the worker "adds value" to data, turning it into information that can be used by others in the organization.

A client's specific request or a standard report format might guide a communicator toward focus, consistency and appropriateness, but in the end, the best way to present information is always the way that makes it easiest for its user to do the desired task. Obviously, the exact information included will vary widely, but the facts should always be structured to help the reader or listener get the task done effectively. Here is an example:

  • Identifying the Action: Tips for Success

A clear statement of expectations will prevent misunderstandings and frustration. An action step might include clarifications of the exact follow-up action to be taken, a persuasive appeal to encourage a particular action, or even instructions in how to perform the expected action. The lack of a clear action step suggests that the information itself is irrelevant or extraneous to anyone's organizational purposes.

Often the last agenda item or paragraph or sentence, the action statement shifts the focus of the message from the information itself to what happened as a result of having the information. The reader or listener typically needs to know who does what, by when as a consequence of the communication. Successful communicators ask themselves the "WWW questions":

Clear communication allows the receiver to get a job done more quickly and more effectively (Kimble, 1996-1997). Language is most clear when words and sentence structure pack the most information in the fewest words. Communicators need to be careful to use language that everyone understands, avoiding jargon, regional dialects, or popular slang that others are not familiar with. Instead, a good communicator uses specific language, with a straightforward use of words in a careful and appropriate sentence structure.

  • Tips on using Specific Language

Language is described as exact and concrete when it refers to a particular object in the universe, but vague or abstract when it refers to an idea or general group of things. A message is harder to misinterpret when it refers to a specific thing, or action, or event.

  • Tips on using Straightforward Language

The business focus on getting a task done leads to messages that avoid unrelated emotional content or relationship cues. The result can seem impersonal or even rude from a social perspective, tempting a writer or speaker to add words to make the message sound friendlier or more polite. Unfortunately, those extra words can create misunderstanding or distract from the business purpose of the message. Straightforward language is clear because it uses everyday words, active voice, and personal pronouns that speak directly to the reader.

  • Tips on Clearly Structured Language

Clear communication places information in a direct, straightforward order, using sentence structure, paragraph structure, and transitions to help an audience follow the train of thought.

Sometimes clarity depends as much on the conceptual order of the words as on the words themselves. When complex ideas are being presented, people can understand new information best when it is provided in the order that humans typically explore a new concrete object: purpose, physical characteristics, and then dynamic qualities.

Imagine how confusing this description would be if it were provided in the opposite order--or in a random order! Even with concrete terminology, a description that had begun with, "We take the smoker inside each winter," would need to be read again for that piece of information to make any sense to a reader who finally finds out at the end what the thing is used for.

Professionals use objective evidence to prove points, support claims, and justify decisions. Notice the emphasis here is on proving, supporting, and justifying, which takes things a few steps beyond actually making the decision. At the point of communicating a decision to others, a professional might have to gather a few more facts, consider a few more stakeholders, and organize the data so that others can appreciate what it means. Then, communicate in a way that emphasizes the reliance on data, clearly and without qualifiers. (For more details on the use of evidence, select Persuasive Arguments from the Writing & Reasoning Skills at the right.)

    Direct Statements

    Good data leads to confident knowledge, so the businesslike style avoids phrases that convey a lack of confidence. Use a simple declarative sentence like, "My research indicates we should go ahead with this project."

    • Don't rely on feelings or intuition instead of data: "I feel we should go ahead with this project."

    • Don't signal that you are unsure of your data: "My research indicates that we should possibly go ahead with this project."

    • Don't signal that you are asking others to verify your data: "Don't you think we should go ahead with this project?"

    Neutral Statements

    Good data leads to knowledge that everyone can agree is valid. The businesslike style emphasizes an objective reality that is independent of personal biases or self-interest. We often criticize these same techniques. The communication is less detailed, impersonal, and fails to recognize a relationship with the audience but that is precisely how it keeps the focus on the data. Use these techniques judiciously:

    • Use passive voice. "Customers are more likely to purchase cell phones," emphasizes a general conclusion from the data, while "Customers tell us they prefer cell phones to landlines," emphasizes the qualifiers that might dilute the conclusion.

    • Remove pronouns. Eliminating personal references puts the emphasis on the data rather than the relationship with the audience. Instead of "We found a strong correlation between...," the sentence would simply start, "A strong correlation exists between..."

    • Use neutral words and transitions. Words that express contrast (yet, however, though), cause (since, because), effect (thus, accordingly) or concession (in fact, of course), can be especially problematic.

    • Use the existential "there" and "it" as the subject. "There is a 10% chance of rain," or "It is going to rain," sound far more confident than "Meteorologists predict rain tomorrow."

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