In business writing, I find that “formal” and “professional” styles often become confused, or even believed to be interchangeable. Often, people feel they need to write with a large vocabulary and formal phrases so that they “sound” professional.
Journalists must follow the Associated Press‘ rules and academics rely on The Modern Language Association or The Chicago Manual of Style. Business writers, however, have no set standard to follow. Perhaps this is because all organizations do business a little differently.
So let’s take a moment to consider what professionalism means, regardless of the type of business you work for:
- Responding to situations in a timely, skillful and respectful manner
- Acting with integrity, honesty and transparency
- Making decisions with sensitivity to the context and audience
- Shaping actions and decisions to support the organization’s larger objectives
The last two elements really speak to writing style; the organization’s unique objectives, context and audience should sculpt your writing style. Many organizations today want to be perceived as contemporary, personable and moving with the times, so a straightforward and conversational writing style makes sense. Many formal phrases — that came about when business was conducted via telegrams and letters — are no longer needed.
That’s not to say that formality doesn’t have it’s place, but it’s not always necessary for effective and professional business writing. What matters most is that you are clear, cogent and contribute to your organization’s image and productivity goals.