Business writing used to be incredibly formal and wordy. It was common to dress up the simplest of concepts with phrases like “I refer you to your letter dated such-and-such,” “I respectfully suggest,” or “I’m enquiring whether this issue has been brought to your notice.” The list goes on.
Marketing materials were no exception. All marketing materials, including brochures and direct mail, use gibberish such as “your valued client,” “our esteemed customer,” and “upon receipt your kind payment of X dollars.”
It had a purpose. It was a good excuse to hide. It could be used to say little or dismiss something gently. If you’re clever, you can use it to send the most evil, disgusting messages in a way that is so subtle that the recipient won’t even realize it until they have read it four or five times.
Now, with our focus on bold, blunt, “write-as-people-speak” prose in business, we no longer have the fancy phrases to lurk behind. We’re all on our own.
Why has business writing become more direct over the last two or three generations? Is this just due to the introduction of computers, or something else?
Why didn’t the Ad Copy arrive first
The body copy of consumer ads as recent as 50 is a sobering reminder. The writing style is much closer to our everyday business communication today than its modern business-speak. It is a style we use today in online and offline business communication.
Simple. Unlike many other forms of business communication, advertising copy has always been required to be straightforward, without frills, and to communicate with target audiences in their native language.
David Ogilvies was already preaching the “write like people speak” in the 1950s. They had no idea how relevant their words would be 50 years later in a slightly altered context.
Most business writing serves a marketing purpose of some kind. It is not bad for business communicators to learn from copywriters.
Aha! But Computers
I am one of many business writers who have suggested that the informal writing style used online today is a throwback to the early days when tekkies chatted on screen.
It’s not surprising that tekkies aren’t known for their writing abilities. Sometimes, the languages used were not the ones that tekkies would use with their family and friends. Instead, the programming languages of BASIC and COBOL, as well as various other oddities, were unlikely to inspire literary fluency.
No, I believe we owe this to the 1970s and early 1980s business decision makers. The business leaders were tired of paying large sums for expensive computers in air-conditioned, high-security buildings that data professionals ran in white coats.
The CEOs said, “Forget about all the mystique and hocus pocus.” We don’t care about what’s inside the boxes or how they function. What we care about is what they can do for us. We want machines on our desks that speak a language we understand and improve our bottom line.
From Mystical Panacea To Down-Home Tool
The computers became word processors, office systems, and standalone PCs for the average person. It’s not just me; I also found that I had a newfound freedom to express myself verbally. I began writing as people spoke, and, unwittingly perhaps, I was emulating the “me-to-you” style of advertising copy.
We could scribble our ideas on the screen and then change them without using erasers, whiteouts, carbon paper, or corrector ribbons. Yippee!
Email and computers have allowed us to throw away all our preconceptions about business communication. It was the birth of a new business writing generation, which was relaxed, casual, free from constraints, and carefree. All the warts.
There are many other reasons that the Internet and computers have influenced our writing style to be more informal and concise.
There’s also the mechanical fact that most people write their memos, letters, and other documents today and don’t have the luxury of using dictation machines or shorthand typists.
Even today, online reading is a very uncomfortable experience for those with tired eyes. This is even worse for myopics or other vision problems. Shorter/sharper text is always better.
I think that shorter and sharper is always better. It allows us to communicate more efficiently and effectively, even though we must now express our meaning.
What would I tell Grandpa if he complained about the decline of formal, flowery business communication?
You’d probably say, “You would soon change your opinion if you were to type all that BS yourself into a computer, Gramps.” People no longer consider you clever if you use pompous, tricky words. They think you are arrogant and deceitful. Come and learn to be a Silver Surfer!