Conceptualizing the Writer-Reader Relationship in Business Prose

Article excerpt

Writers achieve an appropriate writer-reader relationship in business prose not by merely switching from their own to the reader's viewpoint but by artfully interweaving multiple rhetorical and linguistic elements. The writer-reader relationship is expressed through the many possible combinations of vision and voice, which originate in the textual identities of the implied writer, the implied reader, and, sometimes, other characters. By combining multiple visions and voices, writers create what Bakhtin called intentionally hybrid, internally dialogic language that fulfills a social purpose by reflecting human relationships even when the subject matter is impersonal and technical. You-attitude is but one instance of such language and is not always the best choice. Texts written by Sherron Watkins, former vice president of Enron, illustrate how a writer's decisions about textual identities, vision, and voice may affect the course of corporate events in dramatic, unexpected ways.

Keywords: narrative theory; implied reader; implied writer; you-attitude; dialogism; voice; tone; point of view; perspective; Enron

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"I am incredibly nervous that we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals," Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins wrote in an anonymous letter to Kenneth Lay, chairman of the corporation. "My eight years of Enron work history will be worth nothing on my resume, the business world will consider the past successes as nothing but an elaborate accounting hoax" (see Appendix A). (1) These words began a chain of events that revealed a dramatic corporate scandal and ultimately led to the demise of not only Enron but also Arthur Andersen, its auditor. Investors lost money, employees lost jobs, and the business world lost public respect. Watkins's prophetic words became famous as Enron collapsed. But what makes these words interesting to those who study business language and its impact is the extent to which they violate a central principle of business communication: you-attitude, the expression of a relationship in which writers or speakers intentionally subordinate their priorities to those of readers or listeners. In trying to influence Lay to investigate further, Watkins focuses squarely on her own concerns, fears, and self-interest.

To explore the complexities of the writer-reader relationship, in this article I apply concepts from narratology and linguistics to business prose. I address three questions: How should we conceptualize the writer-reader relationship in business prose? What choices must writers make when they express this relationship in a text? Why are such choices important in business practice? I assert that a complete analysis of the writer-reader relationship in business prose must go beyond the traditional concept of you-attitude, which oversimplifies the writer's options. The conceptualization I propose juxtaposes the metaphors of vision and voice in written discourse. I argue that writers achieve an appropriate writer-reader relationship not by merely switching from the writer's to the reader's viewpoint but by artfully interweaving multiple rhetorical and linguistic elements. Writers must define the textual identities of the characters implied in the text: the I, the you, and, sometimes, the others. These identities then lead to choices about whose vision and whose voice the text will reflect. Vision includes not only point of view but also perspective, distance, and focus. Voice--the instantiation of vision in words--encompasses metaphoric parallels with each aspect of literal voice: pitch, inflection, intonation, articulation, pace, and volume. Juxtaposing the implied reader's vision and the implied writer's voice creates what Bakhtin (1981) called intentionally hybrid, internally dialogic language, one form of which constitutes you-attitude.

Whereas you-attitude is often considered the quintessential characteristic of good business writing, I assert in this article that this expression of a writer-reader relationship is not always desirable. …