Media Influencer

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To be or not to be formal

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Which would you prefer to listen to–a dry formal lecture or a stimulating dinner party conversation?  Which would you prefer to read–a formal academic text book or an engaging novel?

…your brain wants to pay more attention to the party conversation than the formal lecture regardless of your personal interest in the topic.

Because it’s a conversation.

In other words, if you use conversational language, the
listener/reader’s brain still thinks it has to hold up its end, so it
pays more attention. It really is that simple, and that powerful (at
least if you really want to help users pay attention and remember your

I was alerted to a great post by Kathy Sierra arguing for conversational style in educational material/books rather than formal. I couldn’t agree more. It amazes me that anyone would propose otherwise, what with the number of hours (and years!) people have to sit/read through boring lectures, speeches, webcasts, powerpoints, statements, documents, manuals, etc. etc. Kathy goes into great lengths deconstructing arguments against conversational style, which she defines thusly :)

  1. It’s professional. Formal language == professional. Conversational tone == unprofessional.
  2. It’s easier to localize.
  3. It’s more appropriate (whatever "appropriate" meant… we never knew for sure.)

Well, bullshit is what I say. Professionalism is not communicated by formality of the language. It is communicated by the content, which is much easier conveyed in a simple and clear style. Brevity and succinctness have always been worthy aspirations for most writers although only few succeed. Writers most admired and imitated – Hemingway, Greene, Orwell – are men of short sentences and few adjectives. 

Aesthetic considerations aside, it is a sign of mastery of the subject when the writer/speaker can express complex concepts in a simple manner. The ability to do that means the speaker can focus on the audience and the delivery. Interestingly, Kathy offers a simple rule:

If you’re using formal language in a lecture, learning book (or
marketing message, for that matter), you’re worrying about how people
perceive YOU. If you’re thinking only about the USERS, on the other
hand, you’re probably using more conversational language.

Finally, think of Cluetrain, a highly influential book that captured and moved forward the Zeitgeist of the late-90s. Its impact would have been negligible had the style been formal. In fact, the book would not have been written at all as its point was that conversations are the natural way for us to interact. Especially in business. And that the internet has driven the point home even to the suits and people with penchant for the formal.

The power of direct and informal human expression can be immense as blogging has demonstrated.  Pithy and short is the flavour of the day and I hope that formal style will go the way of corsets… mostly used in historical drama or to push matters up where nature had not intended them. So throw away the yoke of formality, you have nothing to lose but your clauses and multi-syllable words that no-one understands.

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One Response to “To be or not to be formal”

  1. Betty
    on Aug 26th, 2009
    @ 9:00 am

    Beauty has been a gift for women since ancient times. Though it sounds partial, beautiful women have always been given preference over an average looking woman. Every woman is born beautiful in some way or another. What we need to do is focus on our strong triats and enhance them and they will take care of our traits that do not resemble us in a very beautiful manner.

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