Business Casual Blogging: The Importance of Tone

I’ve just finished giving a presentation to the newest class of articling students at my client Harrison Pensa LLP of London, Ontario. Harrison Pensa is one of only two firms in Canada (so far as I’m aware) with a dedicated articling student blog, which I think is a terrific initiative. Giving articling students the opportunity to blog offers so many benefits, from professional development to business development to recruiting and retention, that I’m frankly surprised more firms don’t do it.

Anyway, I gave the students a 30-minute primer on blogging, touching on all the standard aspects: purpose, subject, audience, post length, post frequency, and so forth. But I spent a substantial amount of time on an aspect of blogging that doesn’t always get enough attention: the writer’s tone.

I explained to the students that they’ve just spent three years in one of the worst places to learn how to write well — law school — and that they now have to start unlearning all the bad writing habits that legal education creates. Among the worst of those tendencies is a stiff, standoffish, grey-wall tone. You see it all the time in all kinds of lawyer writing: self-consciously proper and priggishly formal articles that read like they’re still being submitted for a term paper. Law school teaches us to “keep our distance” from others as much as possible, to maintain an aura of authoritative detachment. Whatever merits that approach might possess, it’s deadly for the written word.

The metaphor I eventually came up with during my presentation was sartorial. Imagine that your best business suits, appropriate for a formal event or court appearance, represent one end of the spectrum; T-shirts and shorts for the cottage represent the other. A law blogger’s tone, to my way of thinking, should fall slightly on the formal side of the fulcrum: it should be “business casual.” Think of a cocktail party or an after-work event with clients, a place where you can get decked out in something sharp and attractive, yet still classy. That’s the tone bloggers should reach for: accessible and approachable while still respectful and professional.

I once attended a presentation by one of the editors of The Economist, a magazine that takes tone so seriously that it provides no writer bylines and enforces a standard voice across articles ranging from politics to finance to art. This is how the editor described The Economist‘s tonal instructions to its writers: “Imagine you are sitting at the pub with a good friend who is bright and curious, but knows very little about the subject matter of your article. Write as if you were speaking to that friend.” I can’t think of better advice for legal writing generally and law blogging in particular.

Social scientists tell us that most face-to-face communication is delivered through body language, followed by tone and facial expressions; the actual content trails far behind. Bloggers can’t rely on body or facial language, bringing tone to the forefront of importance. Most of the time, what we say isn’t nearly as important to our audience as how we say it. Adopt “business casual” as your blogging tone and you’ll be halfway to reaching your readers before you write your first word.

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