Writing With “You-Attitude”

When writing to customers, business partners, subordinates, and other stakeholders, effective business writers make use of “you-attitude” to create and maintain goodwill with readers. The following guidelines will help you incorporate you-attitude into your writing.

Keep the focus on the reader

When composing and revising, the writer should empathize and think from the readers’ perspective. Ask yourself, ‘How will the reader benefit from the informa­tion I am sharing?’ ‘How will they be affected?’ -or- ‘What will they want to know?’ Conversely, avoid sharing information that is irrelevant to your intended audience. Reader-focused writing meets the business writing convention for concision: respect your readers’ time by conveying need-to-know rather than nice-to-know information.

When responding to a request, be clear

Business writing experts advise to “lead with what you need” when making a request; as a corollary, make clear early on what you are responding to using specifics (e.g., “as you requested, I have reviewed the candidates for the executive speaker series”). Specificity demonstrates that you value the customer (i.e., you’ve taken the time to review their order before writing) and avoids confusion by clearly naming the item or order. In the case of larger orders or orders from companies you regularly do business with, refer to invoice or purchase numbers.

Avoid jargon, but don’t patronize

If your audience shares your knowledge of technical terms, such language can act as an aid to communication; avoid using technical language if it is likely to confuse or distance readers. You are probably familiar with the technical and legalistic language used by many software companies in their end user license agreements—such language is mean­ingful to readers with training in contract and copyright law, but is rarely written in a way that communicates clearly with average users.

When sharing positive information, make use of second person

By foregrounding the audience, you clarify how the communication relates to them. Avoid using “me-attitude,” or writing focused on what you have done rather than foregrounding the reader.

We can build a sense of inclusion and community, but use it only when both you and the audience actually share a group affiliation. Disingenuous use of we when the audience does not identify with you can irritate readers.

Avoid use of second person in negative situations

When delivering bad news, consider using a descriptive noun that names a category or group the audience belongs to, rather than directly implicating them—avoiding use of you in such a case keeps from singling out the reader.

Be sincere with the audience

To this end, avoid stating what you believe the audience’s feelings will be—readers may think you are assuming too much. Statements of congratulations and sympathy, however, are appropriate for maintaining connections with readers.

Sincerity and you-attitude become particularly important for maintaining goodwill when sharing bad news. Avoid sugar-coating bad news, as this might mislead readers or make them angry. Euphemisms can often do more harm than good (such as talking about “reducing our expense base” to refer to laying off or eliminating employees’ jobs).

Modified from:

Howe Writing Initiative ‧ Farmer School of Business ‧ Miami University

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