Since social psychologist Amy Cuddy became a TED talk star, many of us have become aware of the nuanced ways in which our body language shapes not only our social interactions but also our self-concept.
If you’ve watched Cuddy’s TED talk, then you may already be practicing some of the “high-power poses” she claims boost your assertiveness and confidence. (My favorite is the “Wonder Woman” pose: legs shoulder-width apart, hands on the hips, chest out.)
By the same token, you may also consciously self-monitor your posture to avoid “low-power poses,” such as crossing your arms in front of your chest, slouching, or touching your neck.
But are you also watching your writing for low-power or negative “body language” it may be conveying?
Just as our physical posture, gestures, and facial expressions can communicate meaning we don’t intend, so can our writing style. Specific style features—such as word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure—give a piece of writing “voice” and “tone.” These two aspects of written language can enhance or undermine what we think we’re “saying” through written communication.
The two main types of written “body language”
The number of different features that modulate a writer’s intended meaning could fill an encyclopedia. If you’re just starting to become aware of how your style choices influence your meaning, begin by becoming more conscious of these two aspects of your writing:
Voice is the sense of the writer’s personality and character. For instance, depending on the writer’s style choices, the voice of a recommendation report could fit a number of different descriptions. It could (to give just a few examples) sound professional, stuffy, overbearing, knowledgeable, kindly, pedantic, considerate, or timid.
In most business communication situations, the ideal voice comes across as personable, authentic, and credible. Achieving this three-way balance creates a sense of the writer as someone who’s competent, confident, and considerate. Such a voice paves the way to a trusting relationship between writer and audience.
Tone is the attitude of the writer toward their subject and their audience. Tone is often easiest to detect in copywriting (writing for the purposes of marketing and selling). For instance, websites targeting a young consumer audience might use a tone that’s flippant, cheeky, even sarcastic. In contrast, a site targeting elite professionals might evoke a tone that’s respectful, serious, perhaps even deferential.
High-power style choices
The following style choices are the written equivalent of Cuddy’s “power poses.” When you use them, you come across as someone who’s knowledgeable, self-assured, and confident—the kind of person other people trust and want to do business with.
- Short, simple words
- Short, direct sentences
- Simple punctuation (few semi-colons)
- Simple verb tenses (The customer had a positive experience rather than The customer had had a positive experience.)
- Varied, precise verbs
- Use of they as a singular pronoun (instead of the cumbersome he, she, or they)
- Specific language (quantifiable whenever possible, e.g., This year’s sales topped last year’s results by more than $23,000 or 15%.)
- Language that speaks to the reader directly (as you rather than as the user or our clients)
- Language that evokes positive emotions
- Word choices and phrasing that mirror the way you’d speak in a live conversation
Low-power style choices
Watch out for the opposites of the above choices because they create a weak voice and a tone that could put readers off:
- Long words whose meaning could be expressed in fewer syllables
- Long, complicated sentences that get to their point in a roundabout way
- Repeated use of semi-colons and colons
- Complex verb constructions (e.g., If we had thought to have pre-screened the candidates, we mightn’t have ended up in such a difficult mess.)
- Imprecise, overuse verbs, such as to have and to be
- Use of he as a generic pronoun
- Imprecise language (e.g., Sales results were very strong.)
- Language that addresses the reader in the third person (as they)
- Negative language
- Word choices that differ from wording you’d use in a live conversation
An easy way observe the “body language” in your own writing
If you want to improve your physical body language, you need a mirror. Through the visual feedback that tool provides, you can quickly learn to recognize how your body feels when you’re slouching or sliding into another low-power pose.
To improve the body language in your writing, the feedback you’ll probably find most helpful is aural. When I coach clients who want to strengthen their writing style, one of the first things I do is ask them to read their writing aloud. The “read aloud test” almost always works magic. Most people can easily “hear” places in their writing where the voice or tone suddenly strays away from the vibe they’re trying to create.
Just as we develop habits of negative physical body language, we also fall into habits of weak writing style. The first step to changing those is to recognize your behavior so you can consciously start to improve unconscious patterns, one tweak at a time.
Wondering where to start tweaking your writing style? Send us a 250-word writing sample, and we’ll perform a free Clarity Audit. Just mail your sample to firstname.lastname@example.org.