This Stuff Is Important: “Strategic Informality” in Business Communication

When Google wanted to alert users to significant changes in its online privacy policy, it didn't couch the news in the formal language that corporations normally use for major policy announcements. Instead, it used phrases such as "This stuff is important" and "This stuff matters."

Whether or not one believes "stuff" is stylistically appropriate language for serious, high-visibility business communication, it strikes us as effective in this case. At the very least, it stood out from the thousands of other words that wander across our computer screens on any given day.

We haven't measured it, but we suspect this sort of studied informality is definitely on the rise. Language that businesses would not have dreamed of using for formal communication 20, 10, or even 5 years ago is becoming more common. Just this morning, for instance, Copyblogger Media sent out an email message in response to apparently widespread complaints about the pricing of its blog hosting services. The subject line? "How We Screwed Up Our WordPress Hosting."

Two forces seem to be driving this shift toward informality. The first and most obvious is the rise of social media. Just as conversations are less formal than public speeches, communication in a social media environment is more casual than communication in the old "we talk, you listen" model of corporate communication. Writing that comes across as stilted corporate-speak is rejected as inauthentic.

The second possibility is that formal business language is simply being worn out and trivialized in some instances by overuse and misuse. How many times a week do you see a print or online message that proclaims to contain "Important Information About Your Account," for example? If it's from your bank, credit card issuer, or cable TV company, it's probably not "important information" about "your account" at all but rather a sales pitch that may or not have any relevance to your account or your needs.

How do you see this trend affecting your business communication teaching? Have students raised questions about any disconnects between what they learn in class and what they see businesses actually doing? Let us know what you think.