The benefits of sounding like Jamie Oliver


Thomas Heath / 2009

You may not want to resemble Jamie Oliver in any way, but his writing has qualities of energy, confidence and ownership that any organisation can harness by changing a few writing habits.

So let’s take a peek at The Naked Chef. Here’s a passage I sometimes use in workshops:

“I do love food – I’m obsessed by it. I think about breakfast in the evening and dinner at breakfast. I often daydream about family dinners ten days in advance… It goes a bit like this: English asparagus has come in, the peas are sweet and bursting in your mouth, the mint in the herb box is growing like the clappers and strangling the rosemary, leafy Sicilian lemons are about – bloody hell, this is great – I know for a fact that I’ve got some extra virgin olive oil stashed in the back of the cupboard at home, some great Arborio risotto rice, some tagliatelle or spaghetti even, I’ve got fresh organic eggs which are double-yolkers and golden and I’ve got a couple of those goose eggs from Mr Turnip down Borough Market. I could make a frittata with some Pecorino and Parmesan, or maybe some goat’s cheese. My mouth’s beginning to water; right, I’ll buy those peas mate and I’ll have that asparagus. I’ll eat some of these peas raw while I’m waiting to pay.”

It’s convincing because he writes as he speaks. He crams each line with detail that supports his point (that it’s great to love food). Everything is positive. And he uses the active voice.

Too many organizations are guilty of stamping out the active voice. Compare ‘I’ll fix this’ with ‘This will be fixed’. The first statement is active. The action and the person doing it are made clear. And the writer has taken ownership for fixing. It says here’s a positive, hands-on working culture where people naturally think, speak and write in an active way: ‘I’ll check that for you; I’ll follow this up; we’ll work it out…’

The second is passive and unclear: who will fix it? It’s the talk of an impersonal, disengaged work culture: ‘this will be reviewed; arrangements have been made; a resolution will be reached; you’ll be informed in due course…’

People still say ‘it’s more than my job’s worth’ without irony. This is a passive statement about being passive to a passive situation. Any taste of action or involvement is lost deep in a layer-cake of negativity.

Language and attitudes reinforce each other. I work with several FTSE100 companies who have invested in switching to active language for all their written communications, because they understand that sounding just a bit more like Jamie is a pukka way to embed a positive work ethic.