The pronoun conundrum: “we” vs. “you” in business advice

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Business books are full of advice. They’re also full of pronouns — and pronoun-driven confusion — around when to use “we” and when to use “you.”

Start with this: you should write directly to the reader. Compare the following two alternatives:

Marketers must spend less time on SEO and more time on the creation of valuable content.

You should spend less time on SEO and more time on the creation of valuable content.

The first sounds like a textbook. The second sounds like expert counsel. Follow the second.

You’re writing advice. So speak directly to the reader, whom you are advising. You can do this with “you,” or with commands, like this:

Spend less time on SEO and more time on the creation of valuable content.

When to use “we” and when to use “you”

We authors also like to involve the reader by using the first person plural “we” and “us.” For example:

It’s upsetting to us when we waste time with customer service reps that don’t have a clue.

We all have a natural tendency to procrastinate.

These are fine. But when you combine the two, you can get into confusion. Who are you writing to? Which of these is preferable?

1. We all feel pressured. We don’t want to let down our colleagues. So we need to build a plan that everyone will agree to.

3. You feel pressure. You don’t want to let down your colleagues. So you need to build a plan that everyone will agree to.

3. We all feel pressured. We don’t want to let down our colleagues. So you need to build a plan that everyone will agree to.

Option 1 starts off well, but isn’t as direct. If you keep writing in this vein, you’ll be including yourself in what is, essentially, a set of advice on what to do.

Option 2 seems pushy. Telling people they feel pressure might feel a little intrusive.

Option 3 splits the difference, but at the cost of confusion. You don’t want to jar the reader by shifting pronouns in mid-paragraph. Are we in this together, or is it the reader’s responsibility?

This comes up more frequently than you might think — I’m constantly catching in it books and articles I edit.

As usual when there are rules pulling you in both directions, the solution is to rewrite. Make the shift from “we” to “you” more explicit with a paragraph break.

We all feel pressured. We don’t want to let our colleagues down.

When you’re in this situation, here’s what to do: build a plan that everyone will agree to.

A rule of thumb

When you want to write advice to your audience, use “you” and commands. The longer and more detailed the advice, the more important it is to use “you.”

When you want to include the reader in a conspiratorial huddle to create empathy, use “we.” It’s especially useful for describing emotional tendencies.

When these two imperative conflict, be explicit about the switch. Make them comfortable using “we” to describe common problems, then switch to advice using “you.” To avoid confusion, don’t use both in the same sentence or paragraph.

8 responses to “The pronoun conundrum: “we” vs. “you” in business advice

  1. Thank you! I have been struggling with this problem in a video script. I love the idea of using a paragraph break to separate the “we” from the “you”… but what if the content is video narration? Would a short pause have the same effect?

  2. Incredibly helpful in some copy I’m working on at the moment.

    How do you navigate the “WE do this for YOU” or, even more complicated, “YOU need OUR help to reach THEM” thoughts when developing marketing or value pitches?

    1. In marketing copy, generally, we refers to the company providing the help (writing the copy), you refers to the customer. If you are helping customers reach their customers, those customers of customers shouldn’t be referred to as either we or you — as you point out, just use THEM.

      If you use WE meaning everybody (“we all have the same problem”), then you want to keep that far away from the WE meaning the company who’s doing the writing. If they’re close together, it creates confusion:

      “We help you solve a problem that we all have, organizing our lives.” Each WE is workable, but together, they’re confusing.

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