How is your English language usage? I'm not asking about when you are speaking with your kids, your spouse, or your significant other. I'm talking about when you are doing business. Would your 8th grade English teacher be proud of you? Or, in 2011, when people text things to each other like "2 kewl" and "h r u", does it just not matter?
I was an attendee at a training session at a conference for experienced consultants about 18 months ago where the both of the key presenters were heads of procurement for large, but not gigantic companies. Each was asked the question [paraphrasing], "When you receive a proposal, does the quality of the writing in that proposal matter?" One said that it did not; the other said that it does matter. The one that said that it does matter said that while she tried not to make it a big differentiator, she knows that she scores well-written easy-to-read proposals higher than ones with particularly cumbersome language usage. Further, she said that she has disqualified proposals that have been, in her judgment, poorly written.
When I spoke with her one-on-one after the session, she expounded a bit. She told me that she was somewhat offended when an e-mail to her from a prospective vendor started with the salutation "Hi Mary [not her real name]." In her mind, you say hi to your friends, you say hi to your family, you say hi to people you know, you don't say hi to a prospective client that you have never met. Further, she told me that although she really would prefer not to give higher scores to a very well written proposal than to just a well written one as it's generally not a proposal for writing services, she probably unconsciously does do exactly that. In other words, to her, the quality of writing matters, and bad writing doesn't have a chance.
I also spoke with her co-presenter, Mike [not his real name either] after the session. Mike was not as adamant about business writing and being addressed professionally. He insisted that he really doesn't care that much about the quality of writing in a proposal. I pressed him on that issue. He finally admitted that while it may not be as big of an issue for him as it is for Mary, the quality of writing does matter, even if it's just one of many factors, or sometimes just a tiebreaker.
How about use of the spoken word, does it matter? I think it does. Who would you rather use as your business consultant? Would you choose Arnold Jackson [yes, the one portrayed by Gary Coleman] who questioned. "What you talkin' about, Willis?" Or, would you prefer Alex P. Keaton [portrayed by Michael J. Fox] when he said, "Now that is a problem. Surely, we can find a solution."
I don't think that people in the business world are offended by less formal speech than we used to use. But, when things get too informal, I fear that what your audience remember is that you tried to sound too cool. They may have loved your demeanor, but they have no idea what you actually said. You may have won the personality battle, but you may have no credibility.
Perhaps, being somewhere in the middle is best. Maybe it is best to be a little bit less formal, but still proper. To me, that is in the eye of the beholder and has much to do with the comfort level of the speaker. However, if you are in the very informal group, give it a try. Consider adding a little bit of polish to your writing and your speech.
You wouldn't show up for that sales final in dirty, torn jeans and tennis shoes, would you?