Wilbers: Avoid overly formal language to make yourself approachable
- Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
- Special to the Star Tribune
- October 20, 2013 - 2:00 PM
“As per your request, attached please find …”
If you asked me to identify the most clichéd sentence in on-the-job writing, that sentence would be my nominee.
Yes, it’s common. Yes, it’s handy. Yes, it’s readily understood. (And no, this column will not lead to its elimination.) But it’s also awkward, bureaucratic and off-putting.
Stilted language creates distance between you and your reader; natural language makes you seem genuine and approachable.
Compare the following openings:
1. As per your request, attached please find a brochure that describes our health care exchange.
2. Thank you for your interest in our health care exchange. The attached brochure explains …
The first opening is formal and off-putting; the second is natural and friendly. The more natural your word choice — that is, the more appropriate it is for the reader and occasion — the more effective your message.
Compare “I desire to be excused from attending this meeting” with “Please excuse me from this meeting.” The natural word choice is not only more personal but also more concise and emphatic.
Sometimes using natural language involves using action verbs rather than verbs made from nouns (or nominalizations). Compare “It is my recommendation that we make a revision in our strategy” with “I recommend we revise our strategy.” (Recommendation is the noun form of the verb recommend.)
So, do you stand in agreement with me? (Do you agree with me?) Should we enter into further discussion on this matter? (Should we discuss this point further?) Should we make a commitment to use verb-based language? (Should we commit ourselves to using verb-based language?) Are you in need of more examples? (Do you need more examples?)
For practice eliminating stilted or needlessly formal language, revise the following sentences:
1. I am making an attempt to make an improvement in my writing.
2. Please apprise me of what transpired at the meeting.
3. We need to fabricate a dike around this building utilizing these sandbags.
4. Such conditions impede progress in finding a resolution to said problem.
5. Our team leader deems it imperative that we conduct ourselves ethically.
Here’s how you might have revised those sentences:
1. I’m trying to improve my writing.
2. Please tell me what happened [or transpired] at the meeting.
3. We need to build a dike around this building with these sandbags.
4. These conditions impede our progress in solving this problem or These conditions are preventing us from solving this problem.
5. Our team leader insists that we conduct ourselves ethically.
Now for the grand prize. Here’s an exercise I use in my writing seminars. How might you replace the fancy language with natural language in the following sentence?
“In the unlikely eventuality that you encounter various and sundry difficulties with the above-referenced project, please apprise me of the situation at your earliest possible convenience.”
How about “Please let me know if you have any problems”?
Natural word choice goes beyond tone and level of formality. Natural word choice makes you seem approachable.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.
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