When to use ‘I’ and ‘we’ in business writing

Posted on 25 March 2015 by Lucy Gregory

How to talk about your organisation

Until recently, most documents written on behalf of an organisation were written in the third person:

Attica presents this report on the importance of excellent writing skills in business. The authors of this report conducted extensive research…

Writing all your documents like this certainly makes your life easier, but the style is stiff, distant and academic. That might be your company’s intention, but most businesses recognise the importance of engaging their readers.

So what are your options?
 

Avoid ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’

First of all, if you’re writing on behalf of an organisation, don’t use I, me or my – even if you’re the sole writer. Keep these words for communication that comes from you personally.
 

Experiment with ‘we’

We, on the other hand, is fair game. In fact, it’s the best way to write formally but still acknowledge you’re writing for the organisation as a whole.

One option is to use we all the way through your document. If the document has your company’s logo everywhere then, chances are, your reader will be able to work out who it comes from.

For those who are slightly less brave, or who want to emphasise the company name for stylistic purposes, use the company name at the first mention and at key points in your document. Then use we the rest of the time:

Attica specialises in business writing. We edit and proofread, and train staff to develop their own writing skills.

Don’t flip between the two too often or it could confuse your reader.

If you find yourself starting every sentence with we, try rephrasing the passage. Instead of writing ‘We set out our terms and conditions in the Appendix,’ write ‘The Appendix sets out our terms and conditions,’ or ‘Our terms and conditions are set out in the Appendix.’ The final example is in the passive voice. It’s OK to plump for the passive every now and then; just don’t overuse it.
 

Avoid using ‘we’ to mean different people

A common problem I come across is using we to mean different groups of people in the same document. This happens less in formal documents, more in emails. Here’s an example:

Hi Dan

We are about to partner with another company to sell their products on our website, and we’d like to market these products online. Could we have a chat about whether you can help with this?

Kind regards

Jane

In this example, the first and second we refer to Jane’s company. The third we, however, refers to Jane and Dan together. Perhaps Jane’s meaning is obvious in this context, but it might be less clear in others.
 

Watch out for shifting between ‘I’ and ‘we’ in emails

A final point to watch out for is shifting between I and we. Again, this tends to happen in emails:

Hi Geri

I attach the latest version of our report for your review. We’ve rewritten section 5 and included new data in section 6. Please can you come back to me with your comments. Otherwise, we’ll prepare the final version.

Kind regards

Paul

A few years ago this would have been a hanging offence, and more senior members of staff might wince to see it. In my mind, it isn’t the end of the world providing your meaning is clear. If you can rewrite the text without wasting too much time, then great. But don’t lose any sleep over it unless the document is particularly important or you hold yourself out as a writing expert.