I used to have a bad case of adjectivitis. I probably caught it from reading too many nineteenth-century novels back in grad school. Overexposure to the Brontë sisters and Henry James led me overload my sentences with stacks of descriptive words.
Oddly, I notice a similar tendency among business people who don’t have the excuse of having spent years immersed in Victorian literature. An excess use of adjectives and adverbs shows up particularly in writing that strives to convey a sense of caring and concern. It manifests in sentences such as these, for example:
Here at Acme Consulting, we’re strongly committed to giving you the most current, reliable information about economic trends that affect your business.
We greatly appreciate your business and want you to know how very sincerely we value your continued patronage during this challenging time.
We’re really excited to be able to share with you the latest mouth-watering, budget-friendly results from our gluten-free test kitchen.
You might think that peppering writing with descriptive words adds emotional intensity, but the intended effect can easily backfire because descriptors take time to read. And in the business world, unlike the Victorian parlor, time is something few people in your audience can spare.
So how do you produce writing that shows you care? Here are five things you can try instead of piling on adjectives and adverbs:
1. Avoid meaningless “intensifiers.”
Intensifiers are adverbs meant to add emphasis or force to a sentence, without expressing a precise meaning. Examples include very, really, significantly, and so.
Since these words don’t add any measurable value to your writing, it’s best to omit them. If you want to intensify your meaning, try choosing a more precise verb. For example:
Imprecise intensifier: We’re really glad you’ve decided to attend our next live event.
More precise verb: We’re thrilled that you’ve decided to attend our next live event.
2. Keep individual sentences brief.
When we’re talking about the overall length of a message, briefer is not necessarily better. Some kinds of sales emails and most bad news messages, for instance, tend to be more successful in long form. But short sentences and paragraphs almost always function more persuasively than long sentences because they’re easier to read.
In a world of information overload, one of the sincerest ways you can show you care is to groom your writing so readers don’t have to labour to extract your meaning. If you want to be sweet, keep your sentences and paragraphs as short as you can.
3. Use natural language.
“Natural” language is language you’d use in a face-to-face or telephone conversation, in a professional context. Show your readers you care by speaking to them with the same warmth and genuineness you’d use in a live situation.
This means avoiding “canned” expressions such as we find in sentences such as these:
We are pleased to announce that…
It is our sincere hope that…
It is with great pleasure that we invite you to…
Instead, use conversational language, which tends to take a more direct approach:
We have some good news to share… (or simply state your announcement)
We hope that…
We’d like to invite you to..
4. Avoid emphasizing your emotions
In a live conversation, you show concern by focusing intently on the person you’re speaking with. You maintain eye contact and lean in so you can listen.
In writing, you can create a similar posture toward your reader by concentrating on what matters to them, rather than on your own feelings. So avoid expressions that emphasize your emotions, such as “we’re excited” or “we’re disappointed,” which communicate self-interest rather than attentiveness toward your audience.
5. Stop assuming you know how your audience feels
As a writer, you build empathy by showing that you understand your audience, not telling them how they should feel. No one likes to be told what to do, least of all how they should react emotionally to a message.
Especially when you’re delivering what you perceive to be good news, it can be tempting to use phrases such as “You’ll be glad to know” or “You’ll be happy to learn.” But avoid the trap of assuming you know how your audience feels about the situation you’re addressing. Strike "You'll be..." expressions from your drafts so you don’t inadvertently alienate a reader who may not share your sentiments.
Once you’ve drafted a message or document using the above tips, try reading it aloud, role-playing your target audience. Does it sound friendly and caring? Are there any sections where the phrasing could be interpreted as cold or condescending? Nine times out of 10, your ear will tell you where and how you need to reshape your writing so it conveys the authentic emotional meaning you want your reader to receive.
Are you wondering how authentically your emails convey your meaning and personality? Contact me for a free email audit: firstname.lastname@example.org.