Seeking clarity: using classic style for business writing

The mode of writing we’ve been discussing, classic style, may have developed in the academies, libraries, salons and cafés of 17th century France but its focus on confidence and clarity makes it useful for a wide range of writing tasks today, including business communications.

As we have seen, the style imagines a scene in which the writer is presenting something they believe will be of interest to an engaged reader, using clear, precise, engaging everyday language.

Classic style’s concern for clarity disciplines the writer to present the benefits of his company’s product or service to busy customers as succinctly as possible, an emphasis on precision just as useful for internal business communications such as emails, reports and presentations as it is for public-facing information. And the style’s easy confidence, its serene assurance that the writer has no concern other than to present something sure to be of interest to an engaged reader, can actually make it an exceptionally effective mode of persuasion, even if the writer’s ostensible concern is simply to present, not to persuade.

Paradox and persuasion

The default scene of business writing imagines the relationship between writer and reader as that of buyer and seller. The writer is open from the outset about their intention to get something from the reader. The pressure exerted on the reader is often subtle, but always undeniable. And, as I will discuss shortly, it is certainly important to present a service to a potential customer with confidence. But business writing that sets out with the explicit purpose pf persuasion can actually be less compelling than writing whose surface intention is simply to present.

Writing designed to exert a degree of pressure on the reader to close a sale can exhibit a certain insecurity which typically manifests itself in at least two ways.

Sometimes, intimidated by the daunting prospect of seeking to persuade the reader, the writer can find refuge by employing a self-effacing, ironic, humorous tone to mask their intentions. As every advertiser knows, humour, if employed well, can be an effective means of breaking the natural tension between seller and buyer. But lighthearted, amusing sales copy is notoriously hard to craft. For one thing, it is much easier to make an audience smile when the performer can see and interact with them than it is through the stark written word. For another, copy whose jokes fall flat or whose irony is too subtle will simply irritate or confuse readers. Unless the writer’s high-wire act is successful the busy reader is more likely to appreciate a straightforward presentation of the benefits of what is being offered.

The other, and much more common tendency of business writing that sets out to sell, is to resort to bombast. The writer’s anxiety to close the sale all too often manifests itself in the use of unnatural boastful language, simultaneously overwrought and banal, that it would not occur to them to use in everyday conversation.

The temptation is made especially strong because of the ready availability of so many cliches and platitudes that can be employed for the purpose. Since the dawn of modern market economies advertisers and marketeers have developed a formidable arsenal of stock phrases designed to invest companies and their services with a certain aura. The use of these commonplaces constructs a parallel reality in which companies are always offering ‘best-in-class services’ that ‘leave the competition far behind’, or ‘revolutionary solutions’ at ‘unbeatable prices’.

The same impulse lies behind the resort to corporate jargon, fashionable phrases developed by business gurus intended to project an image of expertise. So an ‘agile’ company might ‘leverage’ its ‘core competencies’ to ‘hit the right cadence’ so as to ‘incentivise next-generation cross-pollination’.

Rather than reconciling themselves to the hard task of writing good, clear business communications, every writer, even the most experienced, faces the perennial temptation of reaching for well-worn platitudes that can be snapped together to assemble something that looks like serviceable marketing copy. The result is the tired and patronising prose known as ‘marketese’, insubstantial fluff that the reader’s eye wearily skims over.

Opening a window

Classic style opens a window on the charged process of business writing by inviting us to reimagine the relationship between writer and reader. Rather than casting them in the roles of seller and buyer, classic style considers them as equals engaged in respectful conversation. The writer’s motivation is disinterested. She isn’t trying to get anything from the reader. Her intention is simply to invite them to notice something. She presents her company’s services and its benefits to the reader using clear, precise language. The atmosphere is serene. The writer is relaxed, assuming she has the reader’s attention from the outset. The thought that the reader might be anything other than engaged in what the writer has to say simply doesn’t occur. The writer has complete confidence that her reader has the intelligence, discernment and wisdom to see that the service her company is offering would indeed be of benefit to them.

Done well classic style can persuade without setting out to persuade. By presenting the benefits offered by a service with confidence, clarity and respect, the style can in fact be an exceptionally effective marketing tool. Ultimately, both writer and reader are aware that the performance is an illusion, well aware that the true relationship between them is commercial. But when the style is used effectively the commercial element of the relationship recedes, as the reader engages with the writer’s words for their own sake.

The conceit here is that nothing could be further from the writer’s mind than the vulgar business of closing a commercial transaction, but the outcome can be more effective than if the writer’s copy were designed explicity to close the deal. In their definitive presentation of classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth Francis-Nöel Thomas and Mark Turner describe the effect in a passage worth quoting at length:

The most persuasive of all rhetorical stances is to write as if one is not trying to persuade at all but simply presenting truth. The most seductive of all rhetorical stances is to write as if of course the reader is interested in what is being presented, as if the issue could never possibly arise. In general, the best rhetorical stance, if one can get away with it, is to speak as if no rhetorical purposes are involved. Properly adopted, this stance accomplishes at the outset the actual rhetorical goals: the reader is interested and persuaded without ever stopping to realise that any effort has been made to interest of persuade her.

Three introductions

So let’s look at three efforts at drafting an introduction to a service, two of them resorting to self-effacing and bombastic rhetoric respectively, the other bearing the principles of class style in mind. All are fictitious, using the name of my own consultancy for the purposes of example.

The first effort betrays the writer’s self-consciousness, employing irony and folksy humour to try to cloak the commercial nature of the relationship between writer and reader:

Hi! Thanks for visiting Cumuli Communications. We know you’re pretty busy but we hope you’ll find it worth sticking around our website for a bit. We’re a small copywriting consultancy, and like all writers we’re a bit scruffy, we live on coffee, and we only come out at night. But despite the bags under our eyes we still somehow manage to get things done. Well, we would say that wouldn’t we. Anyway, our clients think we’re pretty good at what we do. Please have a look at our work and, if you like what you see, we’d be glad to meet you – outside the hours of daylight of course! And don’t worry – the coffee will be on us.

This lot sound a friendly bunch, and they’ve made an effort to engage the reader with breezy, informal copy. But the relentless self-deprecation and winsome humour grates, rather quickly. The reader doesn’t find out that much about how the consultancy might be able to help them, and is more likely to be put off than engaged by the cute references to unusual working hours and copious caffeine. The impression is not so much of playful informality as of somewhat cringing ingratiation.

The second version goes the other way, resorting to bombast:

Welcome. Like us you know that only the best will do. Well, look no further. Our copywriting and web design services leave the competition far behind. Like you, we think excellence is non-negotiable. So we offer an unbeatable service at unbeatable prices to make sure we’re the leaders in the field. We passionately design websites, and we’re no less passionate about the copy we write. SEO? We’re passionate about that too. In fact you could say that passion runs through everything we do. So your choice is simple: if you want the best, go with the best. It has to be Cumuli: quite simply East Anglia’s finest communications consultancy.

I’ve inflated the passage’s pomposity for the purposes of illustration, but not by too much. The inclusion of just a couple of these platitudes in marketing text can undermine the reader’s confidence in the writer’s integrity and the quality of their service. The text is all surface: there is nothing substantial or informative for the reader to engage with. The writer’s insecurity about their service and the task of writing sales copy is evident at every turn.

The next version bears in mind the classic principles of clarity, simplicity and respect for the reader.

When you need them the right words can be as elusive as the shifting skies. We can help you find the blue beyond the clouds. We’ve been helping businesses and organisations hone their messages for 20 years. And we know the right words don’t just fall out the sky. We’ll take the time to get to know your organisation so we can help design copy and content that lights up what you do. So if you’re looking for a friendly copywriting agency here in East Anglia please just send us a note and we’ll be in touch to see if we can help.

It isn’t perfect: good marketing copy is always in a state of flux, open to continual refinement as new ideas occur. But the passage is informative and respectful. The service being offered is clearly described, and at no point is the reader placed under pressure: they are simply invited to make an enquiry. The text is enlivened by imagery of blue sky and light suggested by the consultancy’s name.

Subsequent posts will look at the various elements of classic style in more detail.