It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your business needs to sound ‘professional’. But in doing so, are you making yourself invisible? Can adopting a more human tone help you stand out from your competition?

Back in 1976, a journalist named William Zinsser published a book called On Writing Well. It didn’t quite reach Harry Potter levels of rapture and adulation, but it’s been a game-changer to those who overlooked the rather subdued title and gave it a try. It shows what good writing is all about, and teaches how we can all learn to write well ourselves.

As Zinsser explained, good writing will grab the reader’s attention. It will intrigue them. It will speak to them using “normal” words they understand, and it will make them feel something. Most importantly, good writing is all these things no matter what the medium or the audience – even when writing for business.

Most businesses, however, go in completely the opposite direction. They exert words and phrases that no one uses (or indeed understands) in real life – which makes it hard for potential customers to grasp what they do or why they’re different from their competition. What kinds of words and phrases? Things like “bespoke, integrated solutions”, and “issues with incentivizing proactive synergistic visions”.

As a business leader, this provides a fantastic opportunity for you to set yourself apart from your competition. By simply writing in a way that feels natural and is easy to grasp, your readers will instantly have a better understanding of the service or product you provide, and a clearer appreciation of why you’re superior to others in your industry. What’s more, if you use the very same words that those customers would use to describe their problems, they’ll feel like you really understand them and their needs.

This isn’t how humans speak

Can you imagine anyone ever saying this sentence out loud:

“We have revolutionized excellence through success and ideation. We provide unrivalled strategic partnerships together with a plethora of live, social and communication solutions. Our client-centric approach delivers seamlessly integrated relations ensuring a unique and amplified user experience.”

Or how about this:

“…the [name of company] team is not limited within the rigid boundaries of traditionally defined roles. Instead, they come together as a group of talented multidisciplinary experts poised to meet a diverse set of challenges.”

It’s easy to make the mistake and think that this kind of text equates to “professionalism”. But put yourself in your reader’s position, and ask if it will mean anything to them. Will they understand what you do? Do you come across as a company they’d like to work with? Does it make clear why they should choose you over anyone else? If the answer is “no”, it could be argued that it’s not that professional after all.

It doesn’t matter if you’re B2C or B2B: you’re writing for people. And those people want to know that you understand and empathise with their problems, and they want to know that your business can help solve them. Then they’ll want to buy from you.

There’s an easy win here (well, easyish)

In order to have a distinct advantage over your competition, you need to write like a human being. That’s admittedly harder than it first seems: before you even put finger to keyboard, you need to make sure that you know your own business inside-out. You need to know what you actually do, what types of customer you serve, what outcomes you’ll achieve for that customer, and what makes you different from your competitors.

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.” – David Ogilvy

When businesses aren’t crystal clear on what they’re offering, they often resort to clichés and/or formal, ‘robot speak’ – like “deliver measurable results” and “create organizational efficiencies”. When they use engaging, straightforward language, however, it shows they have both a clear vision and the competence to achieve it.

How to “write like a human”

Once you’ve completed that crucial first step, you then need to master the art of writing in a way that uses clear, unpretentious, and natural language. Here are five actionable pointers to help you excel in coming across like the human being you (hopefully) are:

1: There’s nothing wrong with contractions (I’ll; we’ll; they’d; we’ve). We use them all the time when we talk – and we should use them when we write, too. Otherwise everything just reads like an academic thesis. For example, “You will not regret hiring us” can instantly be humanised by changing it to “You won’t regret hiring us.”

2: The best way to address your client? “You”. Not “the client” or (god forbid) “the stakeholder.” This goes for all written material – brochures, website text, and so on.

You, meanwhile, are “I” (or “we”). There are times when you’ll have no choice but to use the name of your business or “the company” in place of “I” or “we,” but they’re rare. Try substituting “I” or “we” for the company name wherever possible; it almost always works better and comes across as way more personable and approachable.

3: “Fancy” words are anything but. For example, “amongst”, “whilst”, and “facilitate” can be replaced with “among”, “while”, and “help” without changing an iota of meaning.

4: Bury dead words and nouns. You don’t deliver change to your car; you just change your car. You don’t deliver cooking to your family; you simply cook for your family. You don’t drive improvements in your fitness; you improve your fitness. Similarly, you don’t need to deliver change to your business – and you don’t need to drive improvements to it, either. If you get rid of all these dead words, you’ll instantly sound more like a human being.

5: Get active. Active sentences are sentences where the subject is doing the action. They’re shorter, more dynamic, and less wimpy than passive ones (where something is being “done” to the object of the sentence.) Politicians often use the passive voice to avoid taking responsibility: “Mistakes were made.” Here are some examples:

“We’ll ship the merchandise tomorrow.” (Active)
“The merchandise will be shipped tomorrow.” (Passive)
“You can find more information on our website.” (Active)
“More information can be found on our website.” (Passive)

It’s time to look through your hands…

Take a look at your own website, brochure, or other marketing materials. How does it read? Is it easy to understand, and does it sound natural when read out loud? Or is it full of pompous phrases and conceited turns of phrase? If it belongs in the latter category, have a go at rewriting it – and then see how much clearer and more likeable you seem as a business (not to mention how much better you look compared to your competitors).

Struggling to get started? Here are a few extra tips and exercises to help:

Before writing anything down, try recording yourself speaking what you want to say – and imagine you’re telling your friend, mum or partner, rather than your potential customer. Transcribe it, and work from there. You should find that there are few clichés and less jargon, and that the sentences flow together more naturally.

Talk to a person who could be a dream customer, and tell them about your business. Whenever they get confused, use different words and phrases until they understand and get excited about whatever you’re offering. Write down those words and phrases!

Address the piece of text to a friend or relative (literally write “Dear [name]” at the top). You’ll need to do a fair bit of editing once you’ve written the piece, but you’ll be working from something that’s far more human in tone – and that’s the hardest thing to get right.

Finally, be sure to take a little inspiration from the experts. Below are some examples of a few companies that are getting things right. Even without seeing them alongside their competitors, it’ll be obvious just how different they are.

Professional and human – some examples

Nulty Lighting

Case study on their website:

“It takes more than a cocktail menu to turn a daytime cafe into a romantic nighttime bistro – something the owners of Workshop Coffee were well aware of. They invited us to create a flexible lighting design that would achieve the right ambience at all hours, while keeping to the style of the existing interior design.

The large windows and skylight allowed us to make the most of the natural daylight, and the space was transformed at night through contrast and accent lighting directed onto the tables and shelving units. Working to a modest budget, we used reclaimed light fittings to reinforce the industrial atmosphere, and added a control system – which dims and changes the lights through the day depending on daylight levels – to save energy.

Yellow Lettings

Website homepage text:

“Yellow is for the empire-builders who want to know their properties are in safe hands. Yellow is for the busy landlords who are fed up with excuses. Yellow is for the savvy investors who want to spend their time buying new assets, not fielding phone calls. Yellow means the same remarkable standard of service, wherever your properties are.”

Smooch Rings

Section of website “about” page text:

“After getting a “D” in his Geography O-level – only to receive a “U” after intensive tutoring and a retake – Stephen Slade realised that a career in town planning might not be his best bet. And thank goodness, because his true love is and always has been jewellery.

So at 16, Stephen became an apprentice in his dad’s jewellery factory. And after many years working in the industry – first as a diamond setter and then as a salesman, he decided to set up Smooch. He was well aware of the problems couples had with buying wedding rings from jewellery shops (inflexible opening hours, harassed salespeople, overpriced rings and a small variety to choose from), and he thought he had a better solution.

As his wife and kids will tell you, Stephen is rarely right. But 15 years and 50,000 happy couples later, they’ll admit he was right about this one…”

You’re all set!

You now know how to write more like a human – and all that’s left is to put it into practice. Remember: this is a huge (and relatively easy) opportunity. Your competitors are busy sending people to sleep using the same tired old clichés, convoluted jargon, and stuffy phrases. All you have to do is write in a way that’s clear, warm and sincere.