Session 5: Making Things Personal

By now, I hope you’ve realized that the skills you’re honing each session are building on each other. With that in mind, in this session we’re focusing on making things personal. In other words, using pronouns like “I”, “we”, and “our” to refer to your business or the viewpoint you’re presenting in your documents. We’ll also look at why you should refer to the reader as “you”, or their proper name, if appropriate.

Many people were taught that business writing is “supposed to be more formal” than other kinds of writing. As a result, they think that using first person – referring to their business as “we” or “us” – is unacceptably informal. As we noted in Session 4, the argument that writing should be more formal than spoken language is no longer relevant. And, because there’s nothing sacred about business writing, there’s no reason it should be more formal than any other writing.

Reasons to use first person

IN fact, there are lots of reasons to use first person in business writing. First person is direct and more authentic because it reminds the reader someone is behind the information. In a business-to-business context, using first person signals to customers that there are people behind the goods or services the business offers. First person is also more authoritative, which is especially important when the document sets out your professional opinion, for example. Using first person reinforces the fact that you stand by your statement.

If you’ve noticed that others in your company or organization use the formal third person, find out why. Chances are people have assumed there was some corporate dictate about avoiding first person because everyone seems to avoid it. It’s also likely that no formal decision to refrain from first person was ever made. If your organization is one of the few that has an actual policy requiring third person, set to work trying to revise it. You can start by using first person and if someone tells you to change it, explain the benefits of first person. You may not win the argument in the short term, but keep at it – it’s a fight worth having.

Writers who are reluctant to use first person also often avoid referring to the reader as “you” – in other words, in the second person. Say, for example, you’re writing a letter offering someone employment. If the person you’re writing takes the job, the offer letter is, in effect, a contract. After the initial greeting (the salutation) – don’t do what many do, which is refer to the person as “the employee” rather than the familiar “you”. How impersonal can you get? Do you want to work for someone who thinks of you simply as “the employee”? I don’t….

Referring to the reader as “you” is more direct and it helps involve the reader. It’s especially important when the purpose for your document is to get the reader to take action

Gaining comfort – and confidence – using I, we, and you will help make your writing more conversational and easier for readers to understand. It will also help you avoid the passive voice, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming session.

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