Part of my job involves creating copy and press release for our company—as well as reading other companiesâ€™s PR and communications. It has me thinking about things that make for good communication from a company, and things that donâ€™t. In the interest of positivity, Iâ€™ll phrase these as â€œDosâ€ rather than â€œDonâ€™ts,â€ because nobody likes to be told what not to do.
1. Keep it short and simple
This is essential. Reading a long, drawn out, rambly, and complex story about anything is a recipe for losing a reader. In any communication to a wide audience, keep it short, snappy, and simple. While Iâ€™m prone to lexicographical whimsy and complicated prosody on my personal site, thatâ€™s my voice. The ten-dollar words, and complex sentences go out the window when Iâ€™m writing something for work.
Use short sentences, short paragraphs, and simple terminology (where appropriate). Iâ€™m not saying to go all Dick and Jane on your reader, but sometimes an exercise in simple language like XKCDâ€™s â€œUp Goer Fiveâ€ can help clarify your message. Instead of â€œWeâ€™ve refactored our technological processes to increase user engagement,â€ try â€œWe updated our website to make it easier to use.â€
2. Use the active tense
Is there anything worse than reading something from a company thatâ€™s in the passive voice?
â€œWidgetCo would like to express its regret over the industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff last week. WidgetCo has been made aware of the causes of the accident, and has sought to address them.â€
Yes, Iâ€™m sure WidgetCo would like to express its regret, but itâ€™s not. Itâ€™s only expressing its wish to express it. They â€œhave beenâ€ made aware, though they may not still be.
Letâ€™s recast this with the active tense:
â€œWidgetCo apologizes for last weekâ€™s industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff. We know the causes of the accident and are addressing them.â€
Itâ€™s not great, but this shows WidgetCo is being direct and active in apologizing and addressing what caused all that marshmallow fluff to spill.
On the web, when asking a user to do something, a short, imperative statement is critical. For example, our product rolled out a feature to help users complete their profiles, in the form of a progress bar and suggested actions. The section on the page was originally titled â€œYour profile completenessâ€. Aside from being complex, it didnâ€™t exactly call anyone to action. It was simply: â€œhow complete is your profile.â€ By changing it to â€œComplete Your Profile,â€ the action was clear, as was the intent behind the progress bar.
3. Be personable
This ties in a lot with two, but thereâ€™s a difference between boring corporate-speak that ignores the reader, and interesting copy that interests the reader. For example:
â€œWidgetCoâ€™s SystemX allows users to communicate effectively across multiple platforms and networks.â€
Snore. Nobody talks like that, and while itâ€™s moderately direct and clear, itâ€™s talking about a user instead of to a user.
â€œWidgetCoâ€™s SystemX lets you reach out to your friends no matter what software they use.â€
Boom. Itâ€™s longer, but the words are shorter and it speaks directly to the reader. â€œThis lets you do that.â€ is a good formula to use, assuming â€œThisâ€ is clear, and â€œthatâ€ is simple.
4. Have a personality
Donâ€™t be afraid to lighten things up. Many great new technology companies have elements of their communication and presentation that are playful and fun, which is a huge improvement on the personality-free, faceless communications we associate with big, personality-free, faceless corporations. Sadly, when those big personality-free, faceless corporations decide to try having a personality, itâ€™s when theyâ€™re trying to sell you something.
You donâ€™t need to sell something to have a little fun and make your customers smile. A little bit of informality, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of cleverness all go a long way to defining how you communicate and how people respond to it. This is a balancing act, of course. When telling someone bad news, surrounding it with jugglers and clowns is only going to hurt you. Context is key with everything.
These are just a few thoughts from my experience writing for a business. All of these take time and practice. All of these, too, can be wrung out by any sort of bureaucratic structure that isnâ€™t all on the same page about how you communicate.  This goes beyond writing well from a technical standpoint. These are matters of voice and presentation that often get lost in attempts to be either all things to all people, or cover-your-ass desperation. If you trust your own ability to communicate, and do so honestly, and clearly, the ideas in this post extend naturally.
See, for example, banks and government agencies. ↩