Write How You Speak

by Craig Shrives

How To Use Natural Language in Business Writing

The best business writing is easy to read. Filling a document with hard-to-understand words and hard-to-unpick sentence structures is a fail. "Write how you speak" is great advice for a business writer.

There is a well-used saying that will guide us through the next section:
"If your writing reads like writing, then re-write it."

Why Is Speaking So Great?

Speaking is great. It's clear, full of personality and structured naturally. In my opinion, that last point (structured naturally) is its most fantastic trait. Writing, on the other hand, can be boring, corporate, predictable, and structured abnormally. What do I mean by "structured abnormally"? Well, mostly, I mean an overuse of nouns (i.e., naming words). Look at these examples (nouns in bold):
  • Unnatural: I was under the mistaken assumption you performed the dance.
  • Natural: I mistakenly assumed you danced.
  • Unnatural: We promise an undertaking to show support for your actions.
  • Natural: We promise to support you.
  • Unnatural: They are in agreement with us.
  • Natural: They agree with us.
  • Unnatural: She will be in attendance at the meeting.
  • Natural: She will attend the meeting.
  • Unnatural: He was in violation of several regulations.
  • Natural: He violated several regulations.
  • Unnatural: Will it have an effect on our procedures?
  • Natural: Will it affect our procedures?
It's true that people overuse nouns when they're trying to sound official, but there is another way to look at the problem. Quite often the right verb (i.e., a doing word) will remove the pomp from your sentence. In the examples below, a good solid verb (shown in bold) gets the job done far more naturally:
  • Unnatural: This rule is applicable to both teams.
  • Natural: This rule applies to both teams.
  • Unnatural: The treaty is binding for all parties.
  • Natural: The treaty binds all parties.
  • Unnatural: The solution is derived from three universities' work.
  • Natural: The solution derives from three universities' work.
  • Unnatural: The Jamaican sunrise is influential in his work.
  • Natural: The Jamaican sunrise influences his work.
There are entire books dedicated to writing succinctly and naturally, but to get a 90% fix, you don't have to read them or even understand what's going on with the grammar. All you have to do is say what you want to impart aloud and then write it down. Provided you don't trick yourself into talking like someone you're not, you'll end up with a natural-sounding text (i.e., a text with good solid verbs and just enough nouns to get the job done).

Hang on. Let's be a bit more realistic about this. You're not really going to say every sentence out loud before writing it down, but you could do that for the odd one if you're struggling with the structure of a sentence. Quite often, writers tie themselves up in knots with a sentence because they're trying to express too many ideas in an unnatural way (i.e., using too many Latinate words and nouns).

The best thing to do if a sentence is starting to run away with you is the following:
  1. Stop.
  2. Say what you want to impart (out loud if it helps).
  3. Write it down.
  4. Carry on.
That's a technique to free a brain block if you get yourself bogged down. More generally, here's what to do:
  1. Write as naturally and as simply as you can.
  2. Read your writing out loud when you've finished.
  3. If you can read it naturally, your sentence structure and word choice will be good.
  4. If you have to "warble" to get through the sentences (i.e., stressing words in a way that only you as the author could), you need to rethink your sentence structure and word choice.
"Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people."
(Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, 18651939)
You could think of writing as "speaking plus." Write as you would speak, but:
  1. Make tweaks to improve the choice of words.
  2. Remove any repetition.
  3. Remove any ambiguity.
  4. Improve succinctness.

Be Yourself, and the Right Words Will Appear

Don't be afraid to be yourself. Let your personality show through. It's a great way to give your writing a natural flow and to make it more interesting. A few years ago, I came across a terrific example of someone tripping up by trying to be someone else:

For some reason, I was watching America's Next Top Model. Don't ask me why. One of the contestants was being asked questions to give the judges some insight into her personality. She was asked, "What's your favourite film?" Trying to be sophisticated, she announced "I really love Dinner at Tiffany's."

The ensuing silence alerted her to her error. She then said with waning confidence, "Lunch at Tiffany's?" Another silence. Somewhat unimpressed, one of the judges said, "Breakfast. Breakfast at Tiffany's".

"Yes, that's it", she blurted, "Breakfast at Tiffany's. That's my favourite film." I didn't watch any more of the show, but I'm guessing she didn't progress in the competition.

Now, that's an extreme example of what can happen if you try to be someone you're not. The point here is just be yourself. That honesty will improve your writing, particularly the structure of your sentences. It will also engender trust between you and your readers.

Format, Word Choice, and Grammar

The effectiveness of your document will also be determined by the following:

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