Referees, Persuasion and the Board. How Thinking About Your Reader Can Help Decision-Making.

Reports, presentations, blogs, tweets and endless emails; we all have to use words at work and we (mostly) know what we want to say. But how often do we consider how we’re going to say it? Or even why we’re writing in the first place?

To ask for things in business communication we need to combine three elements: what, how and why. In linguistic terms these are locution, illocution and perlocution.

- Locution – the utterance and its ostensible meaning
- Illocution – the intended meaning
- Perlocution – the effect on the reader/hearer, intended or not.

The terminology comes from the work of language philosopher, J.L Austin. In the mid-twentieth century he proposed the idea that we use language to do things, as well as to assert them. We use spoken and written language to bring about an effect or to persuade the hearer/reader to do something.

In speech we can see this idea in action when a referee gives a penalty. His or her words have an effect, they cause the players to act. In business, and in writing, we don’t have the power of a referee. So we are concerned not only with bringing about an effect, but also with persuading a reader to do something.

How can locution, illocution and perlocution be applied to business writing? Usually, we know what we want to say. The message can fail however, when we don’t give equal weight to the how and why of our words.

What You Write

Locution is the unvarnished, straight-forward meaning of your words. For example, the beginning of a report might start with:

i) We ask the board to decide on the strategy.

This is a pretty unambiguous sentence, even for a British English speaker, used to reading additional meaning into statements. It is active and in subject-verb-object format, which is typical in English. We (subject), ask (active verb), the board (object). It also uses ‘ask’ rather than ‘want’ to show politeness. Replace ‘ask’ with ‘want’ and the sentence suddenly becomes very direct.

Ah, But How Do You Say It?

Illocution includes the linguistic structure you use, the intentions behind your words, and the cultural conventions you share (or not) with your reader.

For example, these two sentences ask for the same thing as i), but the how is different.

ii) We are seeking the board’s agreement on our strategy.

iii) The board is asked for a decision on its preferred strategy.

In ii) there is energy and action. It comes from the present continuous (are seeking) and the possessive pronoun (our), rather than the more neutral ‘the’. ‘Seek’ tempers this upbeat tone. It’s is a polite form of asking and suggests inclination, but not a definite position.

The passive is much maligned, but in iii) it shows a classic deference move. ‘Is asked to’ makes the writer sound more respectful.  Combined with ‘its’, the request leaves space in the meaning for the board to feel this is their decision, not one which has already been made.

The twitter account @SoVeryBritish is funny because it shows what happens which locution and illocution don’t work together. This example plays on the culturally understood linguistic conventions used to let a hearer down gently.

Very British Problems @SoVeryBritish

And Why Are You Writing in the First Place?

What’s the effect of the what and how choices on the reader; why are you writing?

Thinking about perlocution before you write could help get the response you need. You can do this by thinking about your reader: who are they, what do they need to know, what do they already know, how long have they got?

For example:

i) We ask the board to decide on the strategy.

Could irritate the board by appearing abrupt, or be welcomed as a straight-forward ask.

ii) We are seeking the board’s agreement on our strategy.

Could make the board feel superfluous, just rubber stamping the decision, or be seen as a considered approach by a well-versed team.

iii) The board is asked for a decision on its preferred strategy.

Could result in a good agreement and positive feedback, or be viewed as a flabby presentation making the time-pressured board do all the work.

These varying responses depend on the reader, so asking why you’re writing is a crucial consideration in effective communication.

Asking for things is a common business challenge. In the flurry of reports, presentations, blogs, and emails it’s not easy to prevent a dislocation between what you say, what you mean and what actually happens. But knowing how to apply linguistic theory to your requests can help to get the result you want.

We’d love to talk to you about why you write. Give Kate a call to discuss a bespoke seminar for your team.


How to Do Things with Words (1962) J.L Austin, Clarendon Press.