Originally published April 2018, Updated February 2024.
Professional business writing tips should include “be wary of trends” because every few years it seems we have some kind of odd language trend that dumbs down our communications.
In the recent past, we’ve experienced the persistent “you know” inserted into almost every sentence and now we have the annoying “no worries” that’s currently used in place of “you’re welcome.” Sometimes these phrasings are used in verbal speech only, and are not crossing over into business writing, so that’s a relief. I can’t see any of us, you know, writing business emails, you know, in the same way we’d speak, you know.
Saying “I feel” instead of “I think,” however, has crossed the line from spoken to written communications and that is very bad for your credibility at work!
Using feel in place of think is not new to the English language, nor is it necessarily wrong. But if you find yourself using “I feel” in your business writing, then you need to know you might be weakening that writing. Since anecdotally I have seen a sharp increase in professional people using feel in place of think—even in journalistic writing like articles and in reports—I think it’s time we address this topic—and why I think you need to avoid “I feel.”
Professional Business Writing Tips: Feel Is Weak
In general, feel is a word we should use to describe a feeling. Feel = feeling. On the other hand, think is a word we should use to describe an opinion or thought. Think = thought. You can substitute feel for think, but not the other way around. To say “I feel hungry” works, but to say “I think hungry” does not. On the other hand, one can say “I feel like you’re not trying” and no one bats an eye, even though perhaps it should be “I think you’re not trying.”
Using the word feel in place of a more appropriate one such as think weakens your writing because it disassociates you from your thought or opinion and it makes what you’re saying more emotional. Consider these examples:
- I feel that a 10% drop in productivity is alarming.
- I think a 10% drop in productivity is alarming.
- I feel like I’m contributing to the team.
- I think I’m contributing to the team.
- I feel like you’re contributing to the team.
- I think you’re contributing to the team.
- I feel we have a communication issue.
- I think we have a communication issue.
Can you see the difference in each of these examples? Using think makes the statement stronger and more definite, no matter the statement. (And it doesn’t have to be the word think, as we’ll talk about in a minute.)
Or consider these examples from people who could use some professional business writing tips!
- From an article… The statement “…only 55 percent of employees feel as though performance management appraisals are effective for employees to develop themselves and their abilities at work” is definitely stronger as “…only 55 percent of employees think performance management appraisals are effective….” With this change, we tighten the writing andmake a more direct statement—which seems appropriate given that only half of employees think their performance appraisals are doing any good!
- From a report… “Less than half of professionals who consider themselves primarily digital marketers feel highly proficient in digital marketing” makes more sense as “Less than half of professionals who consider themselves primarily digital marketers believe they are highly proficient in digital marketing.”
- From a salesperson’s email… “Joe and I feel like we could build you an excellent campaign, and I’m eager to get your thoughts/feedback on the proposal” is stronger as “Joe and I know we could build you an excellent campaign, and I’m eager to get your thoughts/feedback on the proposal.” As the potential customer, wouldn’t you prefer the more confident wording?
Why Do We Default to Feel?
Professional business writing tips usually advise you to write clearly and concisely. Neither verbose nor wishy washy writing has a place in the business world. Why then do we willingly weaken our business writing with the word feel? I suspect we are using the word feel when we mean think or something else because we are holding back. (Notice how that first sentence changes when I say “I feel we are using the word feel when we mean think or something else because we are holding back”?) We are cautious about expressing our opinions, both in speech and in the written word. But if you’re saying you feel something in a business email or document, you’re weakening that email…and your message and credibility.
When we use feel, it makes it sound like we are coming from a place of emotion and not one of rational thought or logic. And if it looks like we are basing our opinions or ideas on emotions, we are taking away from our credibility in the workplace, plus diminishing the impact of our written communications.
Alternatives to the Word Think
Although I’m suggesting you avoid the word feel, don’t think you’re stuck with think. In reality, you have several options besides think as your replacement. In fact, other words work just as well—and sometimes better—to accurately describe your opinion or thought, words like assume, suspect, conclude and believe. Next time you’re tempted to use feel, stop for a second and run through these alternative words to find a better fit.
Sometimes Feel Is the Right Word
Just because we are talking about professional business writing tips does not mean you must strike the word feel from your business vocabulary. There could very well be times and situations when saying “I feel…” is either accurate or appropriate.
For example, you will have legitimate feelings at work. If you’re apprehensive about an upcoming sales meeting, for example, you wouldn’t say “I think nervous about this meeting,” would you? You’d say, “I feel nervous about this meeting.”
In addition, it could be you’re writing to an audience that will respond better to emotion or a weaker wording. For example, you might have to address a touchy subject. “I feel like you and Sue aren’t getting along as well as you could on this project” might soften the effect of your words compared to “I think you and Sue aren’t getting along as well as you could on this project” which could sound accusatory to your listener. On the other hand, your listener might not take your criticism or concern seriously because of your word choice.
In a case like this, it might be better to use “I feel” to get your message across, but be careful when you make this distinction. If you’re going to risk weakening your writing, your credibility and/or your argument, make sure it’s necessary to do so.
“I feel” can be legitimate in professional business writing, but make sure you’re making that choice consciously, not because it has become a trend. And if you think (or feel) that your word choice doesn’t matter that much, read 7 reasons why your business writing skills need to improve.
For more professional business writing tips, see other topics here, take a free class on improving your own writing, or follow me on LinkedIn. Because I feel you can be a better, faster writer? No, I know you can!