Guidelines for Adopting the 'You Attitude' in Professional Writing

Why Good Business Writing Should Be All About You (Not Me)

Curly haired girl pointing you out.
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The "you attitude" is more than a matter of playing with pronouns or even of playing nice. It's good business.

In professional writing, the "you attitude" means looking at a topic from the reader's point of view ("you") instead of our own ("me"):

  • Me Attitude: I have requested that your order is sent out today.
  • You Attitude: You will receive your order by Wednesday.

In emails, letters, and reports, emphasizing what our readers want or need to know is likely to generate goodwill and lead to positive results.

Why It's All About You, You, You

Put yourself in the reader's place and think about the kinds of emails and letters that you like to receive. Messages that are stuffy, pushy, and vague? Unlikely.

Messages that elicit a positive response are generally positive themselves: courteous and considerate, with just enough information to anticipate the most common questions and concerns.

In any case, don't make your message all about "me" or "us." If you're trying to persuade your readers to buy a product, accept an offer, pay a bill, or perform a service for you, emphasize what's in it for them.

You're in Good Hands -- or Maybe Not

Here's an excerpt from a letter (addressed to "Insured" followed by a ten-digit number) that shows a marked insensitivity to the "you attitude":

As a participating company of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), policies written through Allstate Flood are subject to periodic reviews by the Risk Mitigation Unit of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This review process serves to ensure that policies have been properly rated based on the supporting documentation provided and according to the rules and regulations set forth by the NFIP...
The above referenced policy was reviewed by the Flood Service Center and it has been determined that this policy has been rated incorrectly, or that additional information or clarification of submitted documentation is required to ensure that the policy has been properly rated.
The following items are needed to complete the underwriting file and establish the proper rate for this account ...

Clearly, it's going to take more than a "​you" to fix this letter. For one thing, there's not even a "​we" here. The persistent use of the passive voice obscures any sense of a human subject -- a problem also demonstrated by the signature line, which reads ("sincerely" and monolithically), "Allstate Flood Underwriting."

One presumption of the "you attitude" is that both writer and reader are real people. But like the wrapper on a loaf of Wonder Bread, the Allstate letter might just as well say, "Never touched by human hands."

The multiple-choice format of the second paragraph only deepens the mystery. Just who "reviewed," "determined," and "rated"? That's not for us to know. Has the policy been "rated incorrectly" for the past eight years, and if so, when and how did this blunder come to light? Has information been misplaced -- dropped behind a filing cabinet, say, or deleted by a clumsy intern?

All things are possible in the stilted language of this form letter, and nothing is certain. Except for one thing, of course: it looks like our rates are going up again.

Five Guidelines for Writing With the "You Attitude"

  • Establish a good, respectful relationship with your readers by addressing them directly, writing in the active voice and using the second person (you, your, and yours), not just the first (I, me, mine, we, us, and ours).
  • Try to empathize with your readers. Ask yourself: what do they want, what do they need to know, and what's in it for them?
  • Rather than focus on your product, your service, or yourself, stress how your readers will benefit from complying with your message.
  • Earn the respect of your readers by being courteous, tactful, and gracious.
  • And finally, if you're ever tempted to write "it should go without saying," stifle the impulse.