Let's get controversial.

Formal business letters are not more professional; they're just stuffy. They're not better service; they're aloof and cold and say, 'This is our routine letter; we couldn't be bothered writing one especially for you'. Any manager who insists on formal language for business letters and reports is wrong. There, it's time someone said it.

And, if your teachers taught you "Commercial English", they were wrong too. You want some evidence? Fair enough. I'll prove to you soon that Commercial English has been officially condemned since early last century, but let's be clear what we're talking about:

"Enclosed please find..."
"I refer to your letter of ..."
"Your letter of March 3 refers, and we confirm..."
"Your letter is to hand and we advise that as per..."
"Pursuant to Section 5 of the agreement..."
"If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact the writer."

Yes, most people do write that way. They are trapped by the belief that there's a special approved formal language for business writing and they're missing the opportunity to engage their readers, build a rapport with them and give them better service.

So this just another argument for plain English? No, it's much more than that: it's an argument for appropriate informality. Appropriate means appropriate to the relationship and the occasion, just as it would in a business conversation. Most business writing is inappropriately formal - in a word, stuffy.

Look at it from the reader's point of view. Suppose you've called one of your suppliers, had the usual business conversation and the rep says, "I'll get back to you". Two days later a letter arrives. "We refer to your enquiry of March 20 and wish to advise that the product discussed has been ordered and it is expected to be available within two weeks. We trust that this action meets with your approval". It's a string of formal clichés. Is this the same person who seemed so welcoming and interested on the telephone?

In your letters, emails, proposals and reports imagine your readers and talk to them on paper. Your language will be more informal and you can add some of the other qualities of conversation. Your sentences will be shorter and have more variety and sparkle. Think how they might react to each point you make. Keep showing how it's relevant to them, just as you would in a good conversation. It is much easier to show the special interest in your customer that makes excellent service.

Get personal. Write about people. Most of us find it more interesting and memorable to read, "John and Catherine sold more washing machines this month", than, "More washing machines were sold this month". Even technical reports have some human purpose. We should show it.

A minor point? Not at all. If you sense that your writing is dry, add people and you'll find that you engage your readers' attention and make it easier for them to absorb and remember your key points. It's the way our brains are wired.

You need some evidence to show that your colleagues are wrong to believe that formal writing has official approval.

So let's bring out an authority English Usage. In 'The Dictionary of Modern English Usage', Henry Fowler labels formal business writing 'commercialese' and I think we're safe in saying he doesn't approve:

"...much of it originated in a wish to treat the customer with almost obsequious respect. But it has become an artificial jargon..."

If they still say, "That's not what they told me at school", quote this extract and tell them who wrote it and when.

"... Commercial English is not only objectionable to all those who have the purity of the language at heart but also contrary to the true interests of commercial life, sapping its vitality and encouraging the use of dry, meaningless formulae just where vigorous and arresting English is the chief requisite."
-The Departmental Committee on the Teaching of English in England (1921)

Have I destroyed your faith in your stock formal phrases? Oh good. But let me offer some suggestions to at least open your letters more informally.

"Thanks for your letter telling us about..."

"It was good to hear from you on Tuesday. I was especially interested in your comments about..."

"Thanks for the meeting on Friday and for your interest in hearing more about..."
"Thank you for your proposal. We accept."

"What I am about to say may surprise you."

"I have been thinking about your comments on Thursday. You were right, and we must take action immediately."

"I have some disappointing news for you."

"Good news!"

Forget the cold, dry, meaningless formulae. Spread the word. Let's communicate and build relationships with our writing.

Author's Bio: 

Ralph Brown is a speaker and trainer and the author of 'Making Business Writing Easy','The Village That Could' (a fable about resilience) and 'Success at work and at home' (about emotional intelligence).

He is managing director of Skillset New Zealand, a training company.

Find Ralph's blog and information about his books at www.skillset.co.nz