If You Want Your Research to Make an Impact, Stop Impersonating a Professional and Find Your Own Persuasive Writing Voice
The transition from academic wriiting to business writing can feel a bit like leaving the highway to go off-roading.
In the academy, the communication path is paved with clear expectations.The goal is usually to inform, explain, or teach. That means, the focus is on the subject matter, and the approach is to explore the subject systematically and thoroughly.
In the business world, however, the road to successfully communicating your ideas tends to be rockier. When you're writing for an industry partner, investor, or potential employer, the primary purpose is seldom to impart information. It's to connect with your audience so that they come to know, like, and trust you. Because they won't do business with you, or hire you, otherwise.
This means shifting your attention from what you're saying to the people you're addressing. The audience becomes your focal point, and your chief concern becomes how to grab and sustain their interest. To do that, you'll need to stretch beyond the comfortably impersonal, "objective" communication style you've developed as a researcher and create a personable, compelling writing voice.
Get over the academic aversion to self-exposure
"Voice" in writing is the sense of the writer's, or organization's, personality as it shines through the text. Despite challenges from scholars interested in the relationship between subjectivity and subject knowledge, much academic training discourages this kind of self-revelation. If you've been schooled to create an "objective" writing style that never uses the pronoun "I," then developing a more personal voice can feel exhibitionistic.
But in the business world, things happen--things such as funding decisions, partnerships, investments, job offers--on the basis of relationships. That means you need to enable your readers to get to know you. You need to let your personality shine even if at first that feels like parading in your swim suit through a crowded shopping mall.
Doing this humanizes your writing, and that makes you appear more interesting, likable and trustworthy.
Try these two technical sentences on for size. Which one makes you want to keep reading so that you can get to know the author better?
A. After considerable efforts to investigate the situation, it has been determined that the radar sensors may, in fact, be too limited in their capacity to detect movement outside of the direct line.
B. After more than five trials, we’ve learned that the radar sensors can detect movement only if it happens in the direct line.
While sentence A sounds more scientific and pretends to objectivity, sentence B sounds more natural and friendly. Yes, sentence A conveys the authority of the lab coat, but what kind of person is wearing the lab coat? Someone scholarly, certainly, but also someone rather standoffish and stuffy, I’d say.
On the other hand, what kind of person can you imagine saying the words in sentence B? The shorter, sentence structure and everyday language make the personality behind these words seem easy to relate to and, therefore, likable. And when it comes to building trust with your audience, likability trumps authority in most cases.
So how do you achieve the down-to-earth grace of sentence B, especially if your education and experience have schooled you to suppress all signs of your personality in your writing?
One word: alignment.
A shortcut to finding your business writing voice
The secret to developing an engaging writing voice—the kind of voice that makes readers sit up and pay attention—is to align your writing style with your unique personality and with the communication context. When you do that, you create a compelling voice that engages your readers and gains their trust. What’s more, the act of writing becomes less about effort and more about natural expression.
A simple shortcut to writing in alignment is to read your draft aloud. Does it sound like something you would say in a business meeting? Or does it sound like someone else—a former professor, maybe, or a bland bureaucrat?
As someone with academic roots, you might initially find alignment a challenging task. I'll confess that's often my situation. Since I spent my formative years learning how to write literary criticism, my “natural” way of expressing myself often involves multi-syllable words and long, straggling sentences, similar to those in the Victorian novels I used to examine.
So the read-aloud test is very necessary for me. As soon as I start reading academic-type writing aloud, my ear recognizes how out-of-place it would sound in a boardroom, and I adjust accordingly. I then revise the writing, using the other, equally natural, voice I would use when speaking with clients in a business context.
Here’s how I know when I’m writing in alignment with both my personality and the communication context: I feel confident, the words flow easily, and I’m not obsessing over the shape and punctuation of my sentences.
In contrast, when I’m writing out of alignment, I feel like I’m trying to fit into a coat that’s two sizes two big or two small. The writing process feels cramped, and I struggle with writer’s block. I also spend as much or more time worrying about my sentence structure and punctuation as I do trying to clarify my message.
The power of the personal
In her book on female biography, Writing A Woman's Life, feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun borrows a key concept from Gloria Steinem, the notion that culture trains women to repress their genuine self and become "female impersonators."
As I recently revisited Heilbrun's groundbreaking work from the late 1980s, it reminded me of a trend I've often seen among researchers and technical experts I've taught or coached over the past 20-plus years. As writers try to assert their expertise through a voice that sounds "professional," they often end up merely impersonating a professional. The result is writing loaded down with multisyllable words, jargon, and convoluted sentence structures. Sometimes, the end effect reminds one of a pompous pedant; other times, it sounds stilted and robotic. (More "robotic" than the robot-generated text ChatGPT might produce.)
The antidote to impersonating a professional in your business communications is to personalize your writing. Use personal pronouns wherever you can (and rare are the situations where an "I" or "we" would sound a jarring note). Choose everyday words instead of jargon. Reduce your sentence length. Most importantly, allow your enthusiasm, your caring, and your conviction to radiate through the language and structures you use to convey your ideas.
As you adopt such practices, you'll discover that writing in alignment with who you are feels as good and as true as living in alignment with your passion and purpose. And when you stop trying to impersonate someone more expert or experienced and start letting your own personality show, readers notice the difference. Genuine communication encourages a genuine response. It may also kindle gratitude in your readers. Don’t be surprised if they thank you for your clarity or for making it so easy for them to collaborate with you and achieve your shared goals.
In everything you write, you have the chance to share not just ideas and data but also a bit of yourself. Make it a habit to approach your professional writing with that kind of personal generosity, and your business communication will turn into something much deeper—rewarding relationships with the people you want to serve and impact.
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