Business Writing For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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New business writers are often told to adopt a “conversational” tone, but what does that actually mean? Business correspondence written during the nineteenth century and even most of the twentieth, seems slow, formal, and ponderous when you read it now. Today’s communication needs to move as fast as our lives, and we want it to feel natural.

Conversational tone is something of an illusion, however. You don’t really write the way you talk, and you shouldn’t. But you can echo natural speech in various ways to more effectively engage your audience.

Rhythm is a basic technique that gives your copy forward momentum and promotes a conversational feeling. Additional techniques for achieving conversational tone include:
  • Infuse messages with warmth. Think of the person as an individual before you write and content that’s appropriate to the relationship and subject will come to you, and the tone will be right.
  • Choose short simple words. Rely on the versions you use to talk to someone, rather than the sophisticated ones you use to try and impress
  • Use contractions as you do in speech. Go with “can’t” rather than “cannot,” “I’m” rather than “I am.”
  • Minimize the use of inactive forms. Carefully evaluate every use of the “to be” verbs — is, was, will be, are, and so on — to determine if you can use active, interesting verbs instead.
  • Take selective liberties with grammatical correctness. Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” or “or” is okay, for example, but avoid mismatching your nouns and pronouns.
  • Adopt an interactive spirit. As online media embodies, one-way, top-down communication is “so yesterday.” Find ways in all your writing to invite active interest and input from your reader. Today’s readers, especially younger ones, want to be part of the experience, not passive recipients of someone else’s ideas. Many online techniques have been adapted to traditional media, and you want to incorporate them as appropriate.
If you ignore the preceding guidelines — and want to look hopelessly outdated — you can write a long-winded and lifeless message like the following:

Dear Elaine:

I regret to inform you that the deadline for the Blue Jay proposal has been advanced to an earlier point in time, namely, August 14. Will this unexpected eventuality present insurmountable difficulties to your department? Please advise and inform my office of your potential availability at 3 p.m. on the 2nd to discuss. —Carrie

Yawn — and also a bit confusing. Or you can write a clear, quick, crisp version like this:

Elaine, I’m sorry to say the Blue Jay deadline has been moved up to August 14. Bummer, I know. What problems does this create? Let’s talk. Thursday at 3? —Carrie

Although the second example feels casual and conversational, these aren’t the actual words Carrie would say to Elaine in a real phone conversation. This exchange is more likely:

Hi. How are you? Listen, We got a problem. The Blue Jay deadline — would you believe — it’s now August 14th. Yeah, I know, total bummer. We should talk about the problems. Is Thursday at 3 good?

Online copy often works best when it carries the conversational illusion to an extreme. Pay attention to the jazzy, spontaneous-style copy on websites you love. The words may read like they sprang ready-made out of some genie’s lamp, but more than likely they were produced by a team of copywriters agonizing over every line for weeks or months or years. Spontaneous-reading copy doesn’t come easy: It’s hard work. Some people — frequent bloggers, for example — are good at writing conversationally because they practice this skill consciously.

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Natalie Canavor's career spans national magazine editing, journalism, corporate communications and public relations. Her writing for business media, professional audiences and The New York Times have won dozens of national and international awards. She has taught advanced writing seminars for NYU and conducts frequent workshops.

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