Regardless of what sort of materials you write, you have to select or acquire a style that fits the personality of the individual or organization on whose behalf it’s being written. Style is one of those things that’s hard to describe, but unmistakeable once you encounter it, like the expression on someone’s face. And just like a facial expression, your writing style should match the situation: you shouldn’t announce the death of an employee or a major benefit cut by opening with a joke, nor does it make sense to use a passive-voice, flat tone to announce the company picnic.
Several factors can affect the way you write, including:
- Product: A software instruction manual is pretty straightforward. An invite to the company picnic might also be pretty obvious. Letters written on behalf of the company CEO to a government official are something else. A report on the organization’s finances is something else again. The type of product you’re developing usually dictates your level of formality and the vocabulary you use.
- Audience: Who are you writing to? Your customers? Your fellow employees? The government? Those all affect your content–both what you think they know and what you want them to know.
- “Speaker”: Are you writing advertising copy as part of the general corporate “voice?” Are you writing on behalf of the CEO? A senior vice president? A branch chief? A junior technical writer? This is always the tricky one for me because who you write for and who you are writing to in a business context is often (or maybe always) tinged with some sort of corporate politics. Does your CEO see himself/herself as approachable, formal, directive, detail-oriented, “just part of the team?” If you’re writing on your own behalf and have to write to someone in business context, be they a peer, superior, or subordinate, you have to watch your tone. Businesses are rather hierarchical, like any other human institution, and there are often expectations of noblesse oblige on the part of management and deference without flattery or obsequiousness. Ideally, though, you want to write things clearly without a lot of blather in either direction. Business writing is mostly fact-based and uses a “plain language” approach.
- Context/situation: As I noted above, announcing the annual company picnic can usually be done in perkier tone than an announcement about office supply policies. However, how would your approach change if the company picnic was occurring right after a major layoff or some sort of management-labor dispute? If your CEO is writing to a congressman about funding a product your company is making, has your company had dealings with the congressman before? Were they amicable? These are some of the variables that make “strategic communication” fun.
- Corporate culture: Much of corporate culture is determined by an organization’s size, age, and location. Are you working for a ten-person start-up in Silicon Valley or a multinational conglomerate? Are you in the entertainment business, financial accounting, or aerospace engineering?
Learning all this takes time and experience. If you’re uncertain which tone or voice to use, research samples of previous documents. Obviously if you’ve been with an organization awhile, you’ll have a better “feel” for its corporate voice, but when in doubt, ask, and also apply your own wits to the matter. As I’ve doubtlessly written elsewhere, you’ve got to do a little method acting and think how you would say something or how you’d want to hear it said. If what you want to say or hear isn’t what management wants, well, that’s a whole other issue, but you can at least offer your best advice.
Writing for organizations isn’t for everyone, but it has its rewards, and one of them is the opportunity to shape the things your employer says to the community. The trick, as always, is in how they say it.