How to write like a (wo)man at work

Photo Credit: 謝一麟 Chiā,It-lîn via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: 謝一麟 Chiā,It-lîn via Compfight cc

Thanks to Linguistics Research Digest for pointing me toward a recent study showing that men and women use different writing styles (word choices and sentence structures). This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the differences have been documented in speech rather than writing prior to this research. Second, and most importantly, the female writing style is made up of many signals associated with perceptions of weakness.  (This is similar to what research uncovered when comparing men’s and women’s speech styles. Like Deborah Tannen’s Talking from 9 to 5.) The bottom line for us here at ProsWrite is that it’s impossible to reach pro status as a workplace writer when you use a powerless style.  That isn’t a problem only for women. Details below.

Background first. The study asked 127 undergraduate students at a large university in the western US (split evenly by gender) to describe, in writing, each of five photographs of natural landscapes. Their responses were analyzed to identify stylistic cues that have been associated with gender (see the table). The red arrows designate cues confirmed as indicating female style and the green arrows with male style.

linguistic features by gender

Some Interpretation.   To get a better feel for how the cues associated with female style cause problems for workplace writers, I’ve created two versions of a passage from a whitepaper for a corporate client (recently drafted by a student team in something close to the female style).

Female Style

Male Style

For years the standard for delivering instructional messages has typically been through the use of words, more specifically in the form of oral demonstrations or print materials. Currently, computer technology has emerged to be a dominant force in the world. Coupled with the evolution of the average computer user transforming into a skilled manipulator of technology, the use of multimedia has established itself as a powerful tool for instructing. In effort to keep up with technology, educators from the elementary to university level have confidently employed the use of computer resources. These computer resources frequently used in classrooms, lectures, and distance learning have proven to be an important asset for comprehension and engagement. However, major corporations have yet to make short videos the norm for internal or external use. Currently, the majority of companies appear to have instructional or training pages which consist of only text. Sadly, these companies are spending a lot of money in order to provide the necessary information to their external customers and internal employees through little to no multimedia use. In order to improve, companies need to question the efficacy of this strategy and look to change how they use short videos for educational purposes. Because multimedia information can teach, assist, or instruct employees or external users to complete tasks, videos can become an impactful part of the on boarding, training, teaching, and service desk operations within an organization. Companies spend millions of dollars each year to produce text-only instructional or training pages for their external customers and internal employees. But educators have shown that multimedia, including video, enhances comprehension and engagement. Companies who are not using video for on-boarding, training, teaching, and service desk operations within an organization should rethink their strategy.

Differences in style for the two versions:

  • word count (female: 234, male: 54)
  • references to emotion (female: sadly, male: none)
  • hedges (female: appear to be, male: none)
  • references to quantity (male: millions, female: none)
  • negations (male: not using video, female: none)

To get and keep your reader’s attention in the workplace, you must write in the male style. It is perceived by readers as more powerful.  But this team of students produced a workplace document in female style. Why?  I could argue that it’s because the final editor of the document was female.  That’s true. She did alter the more male style of the initial draft created by two male team members.

But my experience tells me the most important cause is that the entire team is made up of very good students. Female style is closest to the style preferred by teachers: the academic style. And students write formal, extended text almost exclusively in school for teachers.  (They do heaps of informal and brief writing in text messages and tweets. But their purpose and audience in social media is far different than in a whitepaper.) As someone who has taught workplace writing within an educational context for 25 years, I know good students — whether male or female — tend to use a female writing style when asked to create formal, extended text. It’s all they know. When tasked with writing for a workplace audience, some make the transition to male style more easily than others. If the researchers had asked participants to write a formal, extended description of photographs, I believe they would have seen less difference in gender style.  And I suspect those differences would predict academic success more than gender.

Sadly [yes, I am referring to emotion here], morphing your academic (or female) writing style into business (or male) writing style requires significant, conscious effort.  But it can be done. I see it happen every semester.

Original Research

Mulac, Anthony, Giles, Howard, Bradac, James J. and Palomares, Nicholas A. (2013) The gender-linked language effect: an empirical test of a general process model. Language Sciences 38: 22-31

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    1. I wondered if anyone would comment on my expedient (but technically inaccurate) description of the sample for the original study. You win the prize! I’m glad you commented as it made me realize the link to Linguistics Research Digest was broken. It’s now fixed.

      Anyway . . . I’m happy to report the researchers did NOT split any participants in half! There were 64 male and 63 female participants.

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