When to use ‘You’ in business documents… and when not to

Proposal writing might be easier if English had the equivalent of ‘usted’ in Spanish. Many languages have a formal and informal way of addressing people that’s not available in English. Maybe in the past, in olde English, ye served this purpose. I’m not sure. If you know, drop me a line.


So, is there a way to write formal documents, show respect but avoid sounding too stiff?

While there is no direct replacement for usted, you’ve probably noticed that formal business documents now use the sometimes too chummy ‘you’ when talking to the reader. Personally, I think it’s fine in user documentation, for example, user guides, but tend to be careful in more formal business documents, such as proposals, grant applications or white papers.

Saying that, as someone who reviews business proposals, I see ‘you’ phrasing used more frequently. When used correctly it reads well and establishes a closer bond to, you, the reader. But you can get it wrong. And when it’s used incorrectly, it undermines the rest of the content. It appears that the writer is trying too hard for you to like them.

Let’s look at some ways to use ‘you’ in business documents without offending the reader, sounding too familiar, and hopefully hitting the right tone.

  • Consistency – if you’re writing as part of a team, make sure everyone is on the same wavelength. Discuss tone, phrasing, and voice before you and your colleagues starting writing. Share examples that have worked well so they have a reference point.
    This avoids a ‘patchwork’ document where the voice, tone, and phrasing change from chapter to chapter. Aim for consistency.
  • Frequency – if someone constantly uses your name in a conversation, it can seem contrived or forced after a while. Likewise in business communication be selective when adopting a more familiar tone with the reader. How?
  • Print it out and read it aloud. This will tell you if you’re overdoing it. Somehow you’ll hear it before you see it. Likewise, getting someone to read it for you – someone who is not afraid to give an honest opinion – is another way to determine if you’ve got it right.
    Another point to consider: see if you can rephrase sections and avoid using you altogether.
    If you use the term selectively, it will have more impact when you do use it. Overuse dilutes the impact.
  • Location – what I mean here is where in the document should you use – and avoid – using this phrasing? For example, you may want use slightly more formal language in the Executive Summary, and then shift into more business casual English.
  • Make sure the transition is smooth. Don’t jump from cold, formal, stiff sentences to short, snappy buddy-buddy chatter.
  • Tone – the point of using you instead of us, our or we isn’t to trick the reader into a false sense of trust. They’ll see through that. Instead, it’s to cultivate a more open relationship, one that places them at the center – I’m writing to you – and not fixed on your abilities – we believe that we can etc..

Where possible, write in the active voice and use the second person (you, your, and yours), and reduce the first person (I, me, mine, we, us, and ours). This shifts the focus from what you offer to what they need.

Finally, it takes practice. When you read something that works, save the page, or use a tool like Evernote to clip it for reference.

Photo: peterphotographic