Black tie vs. business casual: decoding formality

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

I admit that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, witch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable.

Don’t pull an Elle Woods and show up to an email chain in inappropriate attire.

One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The staff newsletter, written by employees for employees, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT staffers under age 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “resvd conf rm for the 3 pm.”

There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that text would look ridiculous on a printed page. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” using terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and Bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, got a writer fired when someone forwarded it to the CEO.

The level of formality also varies according to industry. Publishing and entertainment companies tend to be casual (although publishing types are notorious sticklers about language), whereas law firms veer to the other extreme. So it might be appropriate to start a letter to a senior editor “Dear Leela” but address a junior associate as “Ms. Pandit.”

The following “informal” elements are often acceptable in business writing:

  • Abbreviations. Familiar abbreviations like “DVD,” “copy” and “fax” are not only acceptable but preferable—you’d sound pretentious if you spelled them out. On the other hand, recent terms like “btw” and “fyi” should be avoided except in texts or very informal e-mails. And as for LOL, BRB and the like—no.
  • Colloquialisms. Conventional wisdom holds that words like “kids” and “guys,” and sayings like “nail Jell-O to the wall,” should never be used in business writing. But if your document has a personal tone, and the terms are age-appropriate and not overly hackneyed, they’re fine.
  • Contractions. Used correctly, contractions like “I’m,” “won’t” and “they’re” have all but replaced full words, even in formal documents. That said, if you’re not confident about your contractions, you’re better off spelling them out than risking an embarrassing error.
  • Em dashes. Once reserved for informal writing, these handy marks—expressing a thought within a thought—are now appropriate anywhere, in moderation.
  • Imperatives. As a rule, clarity is prized over old-school courtesy in correspondence with people you know. “Remember to visit our booth at the trade show” is better than “We hope you’ll remember….” Similarly, active voice has replaced passive voice in just about every situation. It’s fine to say, “I approved that yesterday” instead of “The document was approved yesterday.”
  • Second-person pronouns. The use of “one” or “the reader” instead of “you”—as in “One can hardly remember a time before cable television—” has gone the way of the Cave Bear except in charmingly retro publications like The New Yorker.

However, these elements are rarely if ever appropriate:

  • Profanity. Even if your recipient isn’t offended, work e-mail accounts are the property of the company and can be read by any authorized person. Why risk getting fired for the transitory pleasure of lobbing the f-bomb?
  • Slang. There’s a thin line between colloquial usage and slang: The first describes informal, relaxed language that could be used by anyone, while the second is specific to a region or ethnic/cultural group. Slang is easier to misunderstand and more likely to make you look bigoted and provincial.
  • TMI. Save the details of your personal life for drinks after work. Sharing them in business correspondence is highly unprofessional.

One last caveat: Informal writing does not give you a license to make errors. Though casual language is less pretentious and more appealing under the right circumstances, poor grammar or spelling just makes you look dumb. So edit your informal business writing just as carefully as your formal proposals, and, when in doubt, keep things buttoned up.

Don’t get personal, and other tips for effective business emails

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Emails are more likely to be misinterpreted than any other form of business communication. The writer dashes off a friendly note, but the reader perceives an abrupt tone. You soften the message with a smiley face, and I think, “What a flake.”

Take the stress out of emailing.

Here are some guidelines for friendly but professional emails:

  • Say hello, but don’t get chatty. Pretend it’s a business call. You would greet me, but you wouldn’t ask if I was enjoying the spring weather.
  • Don’t start with a name. When I see “Deborah:”, I assume I’m going to be lectured or instructed.
  • Break out the positive language. Don’t go over the top. I recently got a direct mail piece that said, “We were unbelievably excited to see you at the conference!” But let me know you care.
  • Don’t free-associate. Repetition and long sentences might sound endearing on the phone, but they look disorganized on the page.
  • It’s OK to be a little informal. Avoid stilted language and phrases like “As per our conversation, the attached …”
  • Don’t get personal. Ever. Imagine your email on the gigantic screen in Times Square, and make sure it won’t embarrass you if the whole world read it.

On Choosing Your Battles

Are you charging in the wrong direction?
Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Marketers, here’s a hard fact: You will never have enough resources to promote every new product, program or hire with the vigor its advocates think it deserves.  Instead, learn to choose your battles. Here are three I would avoid:

The Battle of New Orleans.  Remember the last skirmish in the War of 1812 — the one that was fought after the war was won? Don’t engage in the marketing equivalent. I once worked for a university that started life as a teacher training program. We were tasked with “debunking the teachers college stereotype” to a generation that had never heard the words normal school.

Pickett’s Charge.  Robert E. Lee’s classic case of hubris during the Battle of Gettysburg sent the Confederate Army — fresh off victories in Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg — stampeding into disaster.  Since then, overconfidence has sunk many a marketing initiative, from Zune to Crystal Pepsi.

The Battle of Zama.  The Romans turned Hannibal’s secret weapon — his elephants — against him in this humiliating defeat. Kind of like the Internet turned the #AskJPMorgan Twitter campaign into a bloodstained rout.

Like most disasters, these could have been avoided through a combination of research, planning, and a good long look in the mirror. Make sure your clients do all three.

The language of resistance

Recently I said to a colleague, “We need to improve distribution channels for your piece.”

The colleague heard, “She is criticizing the way I distribute my work. In fact, she dislikes my work, and has no respect for the time and effort I put into it.”

Since then, every request to this colleague has been met with a wall of resistance. The question, “Which solution works best for our system?” receives the reply, “Any solution would require change.”

“Which would be most compatible?” I ask. The reply: a cut-and-paste document containing spec information from the websites of the vendors in question.

Even the body language is defensive: crossed arms, tight smile, refusal to meet the eye. Yet when asked, this colleague says, “My first priority is to help the group.”

The language of resistance is ultimately self-defeating. If this colleague feels disrespected, there are appropriate ways to address it. Instead, because his behavior is so unpleasant, the rest of the group tries not to include him in meetings.  This fuels his paranoia and makes him even less effective.

When in doubt, leave it out

I’ve been reading about cover letter and resume snafus–some of them real doozies. One woman gave the owner of an escort service as a reference. A programmer’s cover letter ended with the line, “I look forward to negotiating my salary, as I feel confident that I am worth more than the $65,000 you are offering.”

By far the most common error is including extraneous information–especially if it makes you look bad. Examples: “I type 14 words per minute.” (The HR person groaned, “We didn’t even ask for typing speed!”) “My social skills have improved since I started taking Paxil.” “Please text me, as I don’t check my email or answer the phone.”

Before sending out a resume or cover letter, give it quick once-over to eliminate TMI. Then ask a friend to do the same.