Skip to content

Request Denied: When Military Meets Business

Security officers, crew supervisors, maintenance experts–people in these jobs often attend the business writing seminars I lead. They don’t enroll in any greater numbers than people in other vocations, but they often stand out for the terse way they communicate. They make comments such as:

–Permission denied.
–Cut the fluff. I want the facts. 
–They don’t have to like it. They just have to do it.

When I suggest a more positive, softer approach, at times they announce, "I’m ex-military. This is the way we communicate."  If another ex-military individual is in the room, that person nods agreement.

This is the way we communicate. That’s a reasonable attitude if "we" really means "we" and is limited to "us"–namely, if everyone in the department is ex-military and the communication is internal. If, for example, the entire group of security officers is ex-military, then "Request denied" is probably a clear, concise message among members of the group. But when people join the department who are not familiar with the military style, "Request denied" comes across as brusque and arrogant.   

When military meets business, language has to soften and be supportive. It has to shift from "Permission denied" to "I would like to say yes. Let me explain why I cannot"–followed by an explanation.

It has to change from "Cut the fluff. I want the facts" to "Please focus on the facts."

It has to mellow from the tight response of "Negative" to the flexible, "No, not at this time," and from the authoritarian "I don’t care if you like it" to the democractic "What would make this decision more workable for you?"

If you work with ex-military employees, help them recognize when their writing comes across as abrupt to people outside the military experience. After all, you don’t want them to win a quick communication battle but lose the the hearts and minds of their coworkers and employees. As with all communication, understanding their audience is the key.

Syntax Training

Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.