Business casual: an editorial manifesto
I tend not to trust ideas when they come too easily. While I sort-of buy the Allen Ginsberg notion of “first thought best thought,” I believe that getting where you want creatively takes practice. John Coltrane’s off-the-top-of-his-head improvisations were masterly precisely because he’d been testing such ideas for years. His “first thought” in a solo was built on millions of thoughts before it. (This was the way Ginsberg created, too, if you get past his famed aphorism.) But one offhand term I blurted out at a meeting last summer has turned out to help some of my clients develop their editorial and strategy, so I’m sharing it here.
I get nervous when nonwriters talk about “voice” and “tone,” in part because it turns out oftentimes that they mean something different from what my editorial colleagues mean when they use those words. But there I was, in a meeting with people who hadn’t taken an English course since they got freshman comp out of the way (yes, I checked), talking about the best way to describe something to the employees of a large firm.
The existing document and presentation described a coming change in a manner that was off-putting, because it was stuffy, and I said so. I went from “stuffy” to saying “you sound like a stuffy butler in a tight tuxedo” to “what you need to do is communicate this in a way that’s less stuffed shirt and more business casual.” I hadn’t intended to use the term “business casual” before I opened my mouth, but the people around the table acted as if I was dispensing some well-worn wisdom so I decided not to challenge that reaction. I’ve thought more about applying the term “business casual” to editorial and strategy and I’ve heard clients start using the term, so I’ve accepted, reluctantly, that there’s something there and I’ve developed the idea far beyond what I can convey in a brief blog post. But here are some quick notes about viewing editorial and strategy through a “business casual” lens.
The notion of business casual in the American workplace annoys me. It merely replaces one uniform with another, identical suits replaces by identical khakis, and I’ve worked or consulted at places where a “business casual” or “casual Friday” policy was enforced pitilessly.
Yet the metaphor works. Everyone knows what business casual means, which is a key to quick understanding. A business casual voice is serious but light, focused on ease, deliberately avoiding the stuffy. Business casual is more interested in what it is doing for the audience than the writer or performer. Business casual is about communication, not obfuscation. Some may find this approach as limiting as being forced to wear well-pressed jeans on Friday, but it’s the sort of limitation that will result in more effective communicating. I’ll leave it to you whether you want a business casual clothing policy at your business, but I’ve seen that a business casual editorial approach can reshape the way people in many different kinds of businesses tell true stories with impact. When it comes to communicating, khakis are the way to go.