The problem with sounding professional

Alan’s blog got me thinking about something that often comes up in the writing workshops we run. It’s that my heart often sinks when someone mentions the P-word.

‘Professional’. Loads of us, it seems, spend lots of time worrying how to sound professional – when we’re writing to customers, say, or to a colleague having a tough time. And professional, it seems, means using lots of formal language – especially in tricky situations, like dealing with complaints or a bereavement: I acknowledge that we have caused you distress and would like to offer you a gesture of goodwill.

The curious thing is that in person, or on the phone, we don’t seem to worry about it as much. In fact, when we’re talking, we concentrate much more on being human, and making a connection with the person we’re talking to. We’d say something like: I’m really sorry we’ve upset you. Let me offer you something to try to make it up to you.

Spot the difference

So why the difference in writing versus speaking? Well, when we’re talking to someone, we get feedback. Often quite subtle feedback, like the tone of voice of the person we’re talking to, or the little noises they make. And that means we learn what works: that natural, everyday language makes for an easier conversation. And that if we’re too formal, we can come across as aloof and uncaring.

But in writing, without the feedback, we can be immensely cautious. We fall back on formulas from 1950s guides to etiquette. And that’s a problem if, like many businesses, you’re encouraging people not to call a nice, real person in a call centre, but to have a written conversation instead.

Help empathetic people write empathetically

So when clients say ‘our people need training in empathy’, we often ask: do they? Or do they just need to write like humans? Maybe they need reassuring that they can be human and professional. That, in fact, if we think about what professional really means – getting a job done well – then more human writing might be exactly the way to do it.

We’ve been doing a survey of how empathetic various British banks are in their comms. Spoiler: the more empathetically they write, the more customers like them. You can download our report for the results. And if you have a writing problem disguised as an empathy problem, drop us a line.

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