Ditch the Formality and Start Writing Like You Talk

 Image: Bigstock/photosquared

Image: Bigstock/photosquared

When I say red pen, what comes to mind? Is it your English teacher and the paper you got back with red marks all over it? If so, you’re not alone. Teachers have been giving the red pen a bad rap for years, and unfortunately the dread doesn’t leave us when we graduate.

What is Red Pen Syndrome?

In all of my brainstorming meetings with business leaders and CEOs, I’ve been struck by how fearful people are of putting things down in writing. I’ve had conversations where the person clearly discussed their passions and ideas verbally, but once written down it sounded like a completely different person. This is what I call the Red Pen Syndrome (or RPS). It comes from the fear of the English teacher’s red pen. That someone is going to judge your writing ability and make micro edits like your English teacher did in school. It’s also the fear that because you don’t have a writing degree, that you’re somehow more deficient than the people who do.

RPS is real. I know because I am recovering from it. One of the biggest symptoms for people who suffer from RPS is that they don’t write like they talk. Because we have that fear of the red pen (see how I started a sentence with a conjunction? That’s how you know I’m getting better), we try to stick to as many of the rules as we can remember and edit out all of our personality and passion. What we are left with is dull corporate speak, devoid of personality and loaded with buzzwords and formal language. This is not what engages audiences, this is what bores and scares them away.

Ditch the formality

Formality is so common because of our fear of the red pen. I call this “Formality by Fright”. When we are frightened, we turn up our formal tone. We fear we need to straighten up and be as professional and formal as possible when in fact we should just be real. It’s our RPS rearing its head telling us that we need to impress by using language that doesn’t come naturally. We’re feeling judged, and so we heighten our formality in preparation for the edits coming our way.

This formal tone can be to our detriment in several ways. First, we are more likely to be misconstrued as distant or apathetic (especially in customer service situations). Second, we miss our chance to connect with our consumers and third, we convey the wrong image of our brand – one of stuffy rather than passionate, fun, or any other positive adjective we’d like our brand to embody.

Write like you speak

For those of you who are afraid to write like you speak, let me let you in on a cultural reality: Americans fear big brother and hate corporate culture. Presenting copy in a voice that remotely sounds like corporate drab will have your readers running for the hills. Think about it. Americans these days look for local, we fight for the little guy, and we make documentaries about taking down the man. Think Office Space. Formal language just feels like a red flag. It’s a representation of what we fear: big brother. What we want is to feel connected. We want to be connected to the products we consume, the food we eat, the beer we drink, etc. The only way to connect with your audience is to show a little bit of yourself. Create a culture of content that has character and is human.

Would you rather do business with these guys?

Dunder Mifflin Inc. provides its customers quality office and information technology products, furniture, printing values, and the expertise required for making informed buying choices. We provide our products and services with a dedication to the highest degree of integrity and quality of customer satisfaction, developing long-term professional relationships with employees that develop pride, creating a stable working environment and company spirit.

Side note: Dunder Mifflin is not a real company. Most of you probably recognize that this is the fictitious paper company from the television show The Office. I was looking for a great example, discovered the website, and decided it was perfect!

Or Neenah Paper Company, who has a blog called “Against the Grain” that takes you behind the scenes of poster makers, graphic designers, and all sorts of artists within the paper industry (check out their blog and you’ll understand my point).

Formal language is nothing more than a mask that we hide behind. If you really want to be a bold, authentic brand, you’ve got to ditch the formality and start writing like you speak. Logan Zanelli of Copyblogger says, “Good writing is like a conversation between the writer and the reader.” If you want to have a conversation with your readers, you’ve got to write like you talk. I don’t mean using speech habits like umm or ah, I mean breaking that formal tone and being more conversational.

“By writing the way you talk, you can’t help but inject a little of your personality into what you write. After all, you’ll be writing in your own voice, using plain English everyone can understand, and in a tone that makes you seem more human than textbook.” Read the whole blog post by Logan Zanelli on Copyblogger here.

Here are three brands who do this well. So well that I’ve actually written case studies on them:


Carrot App

Slides that Rock

These brands have discovered their brand personality, embraced it, and stopped fearing that dreaded red pen! Here’s my call to action to you: drop the façade, ditch the formality, embrace your personality, and start writing like you speak.