A couple of generations ago, business writing was incredibly longwinded and heaped with endless, fawning formalities. The simplest concept was dressed up with "I refer to your letter of such-and-such date" and "I most respectfully suggest that" and "I am enquiring as to whether this matter has been brought to your attention." And so on.
Nor were marketing materials an exception. "Your valued customer," "our esteemed client," "upon receipt of your kind payment of $X" and other gibberish were littered all over brochures, direct mail and other marketing communications.
There was a point to it, though. You could hide behind it. You could use it to say very little or gently dismiss something. And, if you were clever, you could use it to get across the most vile, evil messages so subtly that the recipient wouldn't realize how foul you were being until s/he had read it four times.
Now, with our focus on bold, blunt, "write-as-people-speak" prose in business, we no longer have the fancy phrases to lurk behind. We're on our own.
So why has business writing become so much more direct in the comparatively short period of two generations or so? Is it just the advent of computers, or is there more to it?
Didn't Ad Copy Get There First?
It's sobering to look at body copy in consumer ads from as few as 50 years ago. The writing style is a lot closer to that of our current, day-to-day business communication than to its contemporary business-speak. In fact, it absolutely mirrors much of the style we use in online (and offline) business communication today.
Simple. Unlike many other forms of business communication, advertising copy has always had to get straight to the point, with no frills, and communicate with its target audiences in their own language.
The David Ogilvies of this world were preaching "write as people speak" as far back as the 1950s. Little did they know how apposite their words would seem some 50-odd years later, albeit in a slightly different context.
After all, most business writing has a marketing function of some sort or another. So for writers of business communication to take a leaf out of the ad copywriter's book is not a bad thing.
Aha, but Computers…
Many business writers—including me, I admit—have suggested that the informal, no-frills writing style everyone uses online now has its roots back in the way the tekkies used to chat onscreen in the very early days of the WWW.
But now I'm not so sure.
After all, tekkies have never been known for their writing skills (sorry, guys, but it's true). Also, to some extent, the languages involved were not what the tekkies spoke to their friends and families. Rather, it was the programming language of BASIC, COBOL and various others... oddities unlikely to inspire literary fluency.
No, I think for this we owe a great deal more to the business decision-makers of the late 1970s and very early 1980s. Fed up with shelling out large sums of money for huge computers housed in top-security air-conditioned buildings run by expensive data personnel in white coats, the business bosses sat the computer manufacturers down and gave them a harsh reality check.
"Forget all this mystique and hocus-pocus," said the CEOs. "We don't care what's in the boxes or how they work—we only care what they do for us. We want machines here on our desks that talk a language we understand and do something that tangibly improves our bottom line."
From Mystical Panacea to Down-Home Tool
Computers became office systems and word processors and standalone PCs that could be used by ordinary folks. Now I don't know about you, but I found a newfound verbal freedom which encouraged me to write as people speak—and, perhaps unwittingly, emulate the me-to-you style of consumer advertising copy.
Suddenly, we were free to rattle our thoughts down on the screen and change them all we liked, without having to fiddle around with erasers or whiteout or carbon paper or corrector ribbons. Yippee!
Computers and email gave us a breath of fresh air in business communications, as well as affording the opportunity to cast all our old preconceptions into the garbage. A whole new generation of business writing—easygoing, casual, care free and without constraints—was born. Warts and all.
A Couple of Practical Problems
OK, there are other reasons why the computer and the Internet have made us think "informality" and "brevity" in our business writing.
For example, there's the boring mechanical fact that these days most people write their own letters, memos and other materials, without the luxury of the shorthand-typists and dictating machines.
Also, reading text online is—to this day—a decidedly uncomfortable exercise for tired eyes, even more so for the myopic or otherwise-challenged varieties. So shorter/sharper is better.
However, in my view, shorter/sharper is better anyway. It cuts out the doo-doo and lets us communicate efficiently, even though now we do have to say what we mean—not always as easy as it seems.
So, what would I say to Grandpa when he laments the loss of flowery, over-worded, formal old business communication?
Probably something like this: "You'd soon change your mind if you had to key all that BS into a computer by yourself, Gramps. And nowadays people don't think you're clever if you hide behind tricky, pompous words. They just think you're tricky and pompous. So lighten up—come and learn how to be a Silver Surfer!"
And I'd duck just in time to miss the airmailed cup of scalding tea.