Five Tips on Formality in Business Communication

In decades past, polite society was full of rules about how to behave. While many of us are happy to say, “Good riddance!” to the stilted formality that once permeated people’s daily lives, the lack of clarity around etiquette these days can leave us wondering just how formal we should be, especially in unfamiliar business settings. At Google, people wear jeans to work and sleep in nap pods during their breaks. At many law firms, even the most junior associates where business suits and no one is napping. So how formal should you be?

When it comes to business communication, here are some tips.

  1. Respond in Kind – If you have the benefit of responding to—rather than initiating—written correspondence, it is generally safe to mimic the formality afforded to you. If someone addresses you as Mr. or Ms., do the same for them. If they use your first name, it’s usually safe to use theirs. If you are responding to a leader in the field, or to someone who would have authority over you were you to work together, pay attention to how they sign off. If a college professor addresses you, the student, by first name, but signs off with Dr. Jones, use his or her more formal title in your reply.
  2. Contractions – If you are writing a formal proposal, a white paper, or any other formal document, do not use contractions. If you are writing an email, a blog with a casual tone, or a social media post, I think contractions are fine. In fact, I think they can make writing more readable.
  3. Good Grammar – If you are texting a friend, feel free to use abbreviations and forget about capitalization; however, if you’re writing almost ANYTHING else, at least in business, use capital letters and proper punctuation. Foregoing grammar can easily result in miscommunication.
  4. Consider Your Audience – People in the upper echelons of business are often at least 50 years old. Many of them graduated from college without touching a computer, and when they joined the business world, communication was a more formal affair. They are likely to interpret a more formal tone as a sign of respect, which is never a bad thing.
  5. Non-Verbal Communication – While I’ve focused on writing, remember that you communicate in many other ways, consciously and subconsciously. The way you dress, your posture, the formality of your spoken language (“Nice to meet you, sir.” v. “Hey man, great to meet you.”), and many other non-verbal cues will speak volumes about how seriously you take this interaction. A hospital CEO recently told me that a prospective department director showed up for an interview in her “traveling clothes,” which resembled sweat pants. The CEO wondered, “If the prospective employee couldn’t be bothered to dress up for the interview, would she dress up for work? Would she disregard other common courtesies? Did she even care about getting this position?”

If you feel unsure about your writing and grammar, here are a few of my favorite resources:

Whether we like it or not, we’re constantly judged on our communication skills, so before you send that email or publish that blog post, consider your audience and communicate with a tone and formality that will help you achieve your communication goals.

If you would like some coaching to improve your writing, get in touch!