The language of business, the language of blogs

2008 June 2
by Cornelius

I’ve just skimmed over this interesting post by Ron Ploof about the challenges of corporate blogging.

Here’s one point in the piece that caught my attention in particular:

3. Being conversational is unnatural:

Being conversational is unnatural in business communications because we’ve been taught NOT to do it. Communication specialists are used to writing “Press Releases” and marketing web pages. The good news is that outside of work, employees are very good conversationalists, so they already know how to do it, they just need to break some of their Old Media habits. Training works very well in this area. Lastly, companies cannot forget the most important ingredient of a corporate blog — transparency. Corporate blogs are conversational and transparent, and therefore should NEVER be used to spew traditional marcom drivel.

I have been thinking about the style of blogs and corporate blogs in particular for almost two years now. The persistent chant ‘blogs are conversations’ and ‘conversational good, business-speak bad’ has a tendency to drive the professional linguist in me nuts, not because I don’t agree with these popular ideas, but because I keep wondering what exactly conversational means and why it is unequivocally regarded as ‘better’.

Now, as I am gradually approaching the completion of my thesis, I think can give a carefully weighed answer to that question.

Blogs are conversations? Partly yes, partly no

Firstly, when bloggers talk about ‘conversational’ what exactly do they mean?

Real-life conversations between human beings use many expressions that depend on the situational context to be understood. Things like that guy standing right there (so-called deictic expressions), false starts (And I was…. we didn’t go… No, Sue and I didn’t go to the meeting) and fillers (We need to… umm… discuss this in more detail) abound in face-to-face talk. Conversations also typically contains a lot of signals that serve purely to confirm and validate what your communicative partner is saying (things like yeah, okay, gotcha, right, uh-huh, nodding etc) and indicate your stance and social relationship. While conversations in TV shows, plays, novels and so forth are fast, witty and fluent, real conversations are often anything but – it’s just that we’re very good at ignoring all the noise they contain. We subconsciously filter out most of the static.

Blogs are obviously different in that blog entries are planned and not spontaneous (forget all the cutesy rhetoric associated with the word spontaneous for a moment – I use it to simply mean ‘instantly expressed’). Many bloggers, and most certainly the majority of corporate bloggers will read a post they have written thoroughly before publishing it. In the case of marketing and PR-oriented blogs and with executive blogs such as that of Jonathan Schwartz it is safe to assume that an entire team of communications professionals reads, discusses and edits posts collaboratively before they are published. There is planning and polishing involved, none of which is possible in real-time conversation.

So it’s not that aspect of blogs that makes us think of face-to-face conversations. What we associate with interpersonal communication is the interactive nature of blogs – in other words, that they enable a dialog between blogger and reader. Our reasoning goes: ‘I can respond to what someone writes in their blog, so it is basically like a conversation’. The other aspect is language; the content and style of writing that is associated with blogs. Note that point – blogs are written, not spoken language, which means that none of the ‘noise’ described above in occurs in them. Many things characteristic for spoken language never occur in blogs, especially not corporate ones.

Subjective as conversational

So apart from interactivity, what else is conversation-like about (corporate) blogs?

Have a look at this excerpt from One Louder, the blog of Microsoft staffing manager Heather Hamilton:

I’m not sure what has gotten into me other than the fact that I am happier than I have been for a VERY long time. It’s funny how sometimes things can just fall into place. The changes that I wanted to have happen at work happened without me doing much about it (other than saying “this is what I want”). I have finally started to spend some weekend time relaxing (and hanging with friends). And I am starting to believe what Eckhart Tolle says about coincidences not happening; it’s all for a reason (and with most of my life, I get the reasons for even some of the unpleasant things happening). Example: last week my manager and I were talking about me needing to travel to one of our dev centers. She recommended Ireland (oh yeah, I am totally doing that!) and I said “why don’t we have a dev center in Amsterdam? I really want to go there.” Then this week, I got an e-mail inviting me to speak at a conference in Amsterdam. How ’bout that? I’ve decided not to question what forces (if any) could be invovled with things like that happening. I’m just going to enjoy it.

In addition to business-related topics, Heather frequently writes about her personal feelings, thoughts and experiences in her blog, something that I’ve found to be typical of what I call ‘personal company blogs’. Such blogs are written by just one person, have a clearly visible reference to the blogger on the front page (name, photo) and are often part of a larger company blog hub (MSDN, in this case). In contrast to personal company blogs, team company blogs are usually about a specific product, issue or segment of the company and have several authors. I’ve found that writing about personal thoughts and feelings is less common in team blogs, largely because the topical focus of the blog tends to override personal concerns. By contrast, personal company blogs tend to be understood by their owners as diaries or journals where work-related subjects are integrated with personal thoughts.

Now, keep in mind how Heather writes and then have a look at this very interesting research on business English, conducted by Mike Nelson, an applied linguist at the University of Turku. Read Mike’s short article in the Guardian for a summary of his findings.

The kind of language used in corporate contexts (pre-blogging) is fairly strictly focused on a fixed set of topics. To quote Mike:

The world of business found in real life language is a limited one made up of business people, companies, institutions, money, business events, places of business, time, modes of communication and vocabulary concerned with technology. The language found was surprisingly positive, with very few negative words featuring at all. It was also found to be dynamic and action-orientated and non-emotive.

What Mike found via his large database of language samples from real-life business settings was that corporate language largely centers on things associated with business, namely business people, companies, institutions, money, business events, places of business, time et cetera and that these things are generally presented positively (business is about getting things done, not about being self-reflexive or critical). Finally, the subjective emotions of stakeholders aren’t really very important – private matters don’t feature into corporate discourse in any significant way.

Now compare that to how Heather writes. It’s a world of difference.

In posts marked with the ‘personal blogging’ tag, Heather writes about aspects of everyday life that we are all familiar with: buying furniture and cleaning out the garage, cheering for a sports team and experiencing a blackout. Not everything is always positive – there are ups and downs. Heather’s language can certainly be described as ‘emotive’ or ‘involved’, not because it is necessarily always highly emotional, but because it is concerned with inner processes more than with actions. All of this is obviously in stark contrast to what language in most other corporate contexts looks like.

There are a number of reasons why a ‘conversational’ style in that sense of the word is typical for both non-corporate and personal company blogs and why I expect it to have an influence on how institutions communicate, present themselves and are perceived in the future. I’ll focus on three basic pillars: audience, content and style.

Who you talk to

Blogs are a part of the Internet and the Internet provides virtually anyone with near-universal access to information. This may seem like a truism, but it has significant implications. Whereas before groups of stakeholder would be targeted individually and the flow of information was highly controlled, this is no longer the case in a networked world. A careful examination of the Google-Sicko story reveals a case of audience underfitting, i.e. a company employee addressing a specific audience but effectively reaching a much broader readership (and, in this case, not with a positive result).

The problem encountered is the extreme reach and transparency of online publishing. Because we are used to addressing either individuals or select communities of people, suddenly reaching a diffuse, invisible and potentially vast audience is not always easy to handle. This is especially problematic when you talk about people who are also your readers (see the Google example).

What you talk about

One notable aspect of Heather’s blog (and many others like it) is how openly it presents personal thoughts, experiences and feelings to readers. This is not necessarily done just for the audience. It seems that many personal company bloggers, though quite aware that their blogs are public, write partly to record their thoughts for themselves much in the same way that diarists do. The blog is a chronicle of what the blogger has thought, felt and done over time, both personally and professionally. Not every personal detail imaginable is presented, but there is no strict (and artificial) separation of personal and professional topics. Independently of how bloggers conceptualize audience, the effect of sharing personal information is that it lays the foundation for relationship-building.

Being told the subjective impressions, thoughts and emotions of another human being is almost inevitably relevant to us because we value such social information very highly. Knowing personal aspects of someone’s life brings us closer to them and establishes ties which are the foundation of any interpersonal relationship. This is especially pivotal on the Internet where all voices are detached from the individuals who use them. Social information enables us to establish a relationship with someone whom we have never met, because what we know about someone allows us to draw an increasingly complete picture of what kind of person they are.

Social information as a universal currency is especially valuable in a globalized and networked world, because exchanging it builds trust and without trust the foundation for other interactions is lacking.

How you say it

There is a persistent belief that jargon, technical language and other forms of special purpose lingo exist purely to irritate those of us who don’t understand it. That’s not true quite true though – medical language or legalese may have that effect on people who aren’t doctors or lawyers, but among those who speak  them these varieties are readily understood and used for plausible reasons. Jargon allows us to

  • delineate membership in an expert community (techies, lawyers, bloggers…)
  • describe aspects of our work/community/culture/shared experience with more perceived precision than ‘standard’ language allows

In other words, we often feel that what we want to say is said more effectively when we use a specialized vocabulary developed to express it. While this is unproblematic as long as we are talking to others who share our knowledge, this instantly turns into an issue when we address a broader audience – which is inevitably the case with a blog. All of a sudden, use of a specialized terminology makes us aloof, arrogant and out of touch. Audience underfitting once again leads to problems, this time in stylistic terms.

Finally, ‘conversational’ in stylistic terms also implies the use of colloquialisms, figures of speech and other expressive elements which are typically found in spoken conversation. The effect of such devices is again that they allow blogger and audience to conceptualize the blog as a speech situation, amplifying feelings of solidarity and familiarity.

What ‘conversational’ can mean

To summarize, ‘conversational’ can mean a range of things when applied to blogs. Among them are:

  • interactivity – it can describe the dialogic structure of blogs and the possibility to respond to contributions
  • speaker and audience – it can describe the discourse situation that the blog creates on a technical level and the resulting possibility for the blogger to refer to himself/herself (“I”) and address his/her readers (“you”)
  • content – it can describe a focus on personal and everyday topics which are familiar to a broad audience and create a feeling of solidarity and familiarity with the blogger
  • style – it can describe the avoidance of jargon and technical language (due to its audience-restrictiveness) in favor of expressions that evoke spoken language and real-life conversation

As always, feedback is appreciated.

2 Comments
2008 June 8

[...] at CorBlawg has been examining the tone and writing style of corporate blogs in his post titled The language of business, the language of blogs. Specifically, what does it mean to be [...]

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2008 December 21

[...] decidedly colloquial style of communication all throughout their website. Cornelius Puschmann had a thoughtful post on such issues of style some time [...]

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