Social media can be like eating salad with your fingers

“It’s just going on social media, so the usual rules don’t apply, right?” Planning to post a big announcement about his company, he thought there was no need be concerned with grammar and the like.

My answer? No, you don’t have to worry about those things … unless you hope to be taken seriously.

As more of our messages and conversations find their way to social media, language is becoming more relaxed. Even sticklers for grammar and syntax find abbreviations and emojis sneaking their way into their messages.

Still, those personal conversations and connections are one thing. When you’re trying to promote your business (or advance your own career), veering into too casual can be counterproductive.

The simple fact is that impressions still matter. Just as savvy job candidates continue to dress nicely for interviews, marketing and communications materials work best when we keep them on the slightly more formal side.

Once we’ve developed a relationship with an audience, it’s okay to relax a bit. But when you’re in the early stages of trying to make an impression — such as a big announcement about the future of your business — it pays to shift to the more serious side.

You see, matters such as grammar, style, and proper formats are a lot like dining etiquette. Suppose you’re taking a business (or romantic) prospect out to eat. Even though you may choose a casual restaurant instead of a white-tablecloth joint with a mile-long wine list, you’ll still be focused on making the right impression. Dig into the salad with your fingers or wipe the dressing off on your sleeve, and no matter how polite your guest may be, they’re going to assume you’re either a slob or an idiot.

You may not care a whole lot about grammar, and that’s okay. You do you. But when you’re communicating to the outside world, what’s important isn’t whether it matters to you — it’s whether it matters to your audience. When it comes to restaurant etiquette, instead of behaving the way you want to behave, you act in a manner that’s acceptable for the group and the setting.

When you can’t be physically present, your marketing and communications materials stand in for you. When you send an email to a prospect, it’s as if you’re walking into their office. When you post an update on social media, it’s like having a conversation with one of your followers. If you were making those contacts in person, you’d be sure you were making the right impression. Your materials should do no less.

That also applies to career-related communications. I’m constantly stunned at the number of typos and misspellings I see in LinkedIn profiles — in particular, how often people misspell the name of the college they attended. Typos do happen, but when you make that mistake, any of the status your alma mater’s name should lend you disappears. (You may consider LinkedIn to be a social media site, but it’s essentially a business gathering, and that’s how you should approach it.)

My day job is writing, but I have a side gig in which I interview and hire candidates for jobs that pay quite well. When candidates make those kinds of mistakes on resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn pages, they don’t earn interviews. If they can’t take the time to represent themselves well to a prospective employer, how can I trust them to publicly represent our organization?

In short, you don’t have to follow established and accepted standards when you communicate with others. But if that means your messages create the wrong kinds of impressions among those you’re trying to reach, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.