My bud Benjamin
recently asked for restaurant recommendations in Cologne on FB. I tagged Jan from RadTouren
in the comments and Jan suggested a few good ones. Jan asked:
“formal or normal?”
Benjamin said formal if that means better. But is that true?
Yesterday at lunch I discussed songwriting with my colleague Michel
. He has been looking for musicians to make music with. One of the replies he got was phrased rather formally. It immediately gave Michel the impression the guitarist would be a bad fit. But is that true?
Intrigued by this idea and the rhyme: Formal or Normal, I found a blog post with the same title that addresses this imbalance by The Writer
, the world’s largest writing and brand language consultancy. So why might normal be better than formal after all, especially in a professional context? An abridged recap of The Writer’s main points:
1. You’ve got to get read
The first job of any bit of writing is to get read. So we write in a way that makes that as easy as possible. Typically that means shorter words, sentences and paragraphs than the average bit of business writing.
You can measure it with tools like the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The longer and more convoluted your words and sentences are, and the more passive your writing is, the lower your readability score.
2. It’s about effect, not rules
Many of the so-called rules we were taught at school aren’t rules at all. So rather than asking ‘Is this right or wrong?’, a better question is ‘How do I want to come across to my reader?’.
Here is our new product. You will love it.
Here’s our new product. You’ll love it.
To most people, the latter feels slightly more genuine, because it’s closer to how we really speak. Not wrong; just different, and in many contexts, more effective.
3. It’s not dumbing down
As Einstein said: ‘Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.’
4. Business writing has changed.
Over the last ten years, there’s been an explosion of written business media: email, websites, IM, Twitter. And they’re all less formal than the business writing of yesteryear. With it, readers’ expectations have changed.
A typically formal business letter that used to sound neutral can now sound like you’re deliberately trying to sound formal. And most readers associate that formality with officiousness and distance. So we often try to find a tone which sounds ‘normal’, and sometimes serious, without being formal.
Lastly, as any long time reader of this newsletter know: I believe emojis actually make our language better. Check out Vyv Evans’s article in the New York Post
addresses misconceptions about Emoji. And skip don’t assume formal means better. ✌️
Bonus: “Nonverbal cues can clue listeners into implied meaning during in-person conversations, but, until recently, tone and nuance were often lost during digital interactions. Enter the emoji.” Listen to the podcast here.