You, Me, I, or We? Finding Your Voice

How do you address your audience?

Education leaders are responsible for a variety of messages. Letters to parents, emails to staff, media statements and newsletters – the list goes on. Some messages are straightforward and businesslike, while others require more nuance. But a key part of how we set the tone comes from how we address our audience.

Silhouettes of people standing in an office. Text reads The formal we

Speaking in the first person plural is a very comfortable mode of address for many leaders. The institutional “we” feels appropriate for simple operational updates, as in, “We will issue spring progress reports on Friday.” First person plural can even stretch to include some mild expressions of emotion, such as, “We are pleased to announce the groundbreaking for our new student center.”

However, “we” can also come across as impersonal and vague, creating distance between the speaker and the audience. If the “we” is not defined or specified, it can leave questions about who exactly made key decisions or is in charge of the matter at hand. This can backfire with sensitive topics that may require more accountability or personal attention.

‘We’ can come across as impersonal or vague. On the other hand, it can also signal unity.

When used appropriately, “we” can signal unity. By speaking on behalf of an entire school, district or program, the first person plural indicates a collective alignment to the topic. “We” can also be welcoming and inclusive if the audience is included in the “we,” such as when addressing colleagues or staff.

  • Use “we”: For businesslike communications, matters of procedure, low-stakes issues.
  • Avoid “we”: For high-stakes communications, sensitive topics, or other issues where leadership should be shown.

Person standing at a podium, shown from behind. Text reads The personal I

As a leader, the first person singular is a powerful tool to be wielded thoughtfully. Speaking to your audience as yourself, an individual, is a key way to take ownership of an issue and demonstrate accountability. “I” statements also allow you, as a leader, to express your emotions. This is essential when tragedy strikes, or when your school community is facing a difficult challenge. At times like that, hiding behind “we” can leave you looking disconnected or uncaring.

‘I’ statements show accountability and leadership. But sometimes it’s important to let other voices come forward, too.

On the other hand, overuse of “I” statements can be misinterpreted. If all messages are coming from one leader’s mouth, your audiences may begin to believe that your leadership is absolute and unyielding. Further, taking ownership of every single message can undermine your administrative team. To do a gut check, ask yourself if you’re the best person to answer questions on this topic. If the answer is “no,” consider if someone else should carry the message, or if a “we” statement would be more appropriate.

  • Use “I”: When your community needs to hear from you as a leader; when you need to demonstrate accountability or express your own sentiments.
  • Avoid “I”: When another leader (such as a building principal) has more ownership of the issue, or you aren’t close to the topic.

Person smiles and points while holding a cellphone to their face. Text reads The direct you

Just as it matters how you refer to yourself, it matters how you refer to your audience. Often times, official communications become formulaic, with generic references to “parents and guardians.” But a more direct address can be powerful when you want to urge your audience to take action. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • Parents and guardians are invited to attend our Back-to-School Night on Tuesday.
  • We invite you attend our Back-to-School Night on Tuesday.

“You” is personal, which makes it powerful. Used with care, it’s an invitation, a welcoming in. Used thoughtlessly, it’s an accusation, a pointing finger.

Using the second person singular address in our writing also helps remind us that we are speaking to a real person out there, not just a monolithic group of “parents/guardians.”

  • Use “you”: When your message needs a personal touch; to make an appeal to your audience.
  • Avoid “you”: When you want to maintain some distance between your topic and your audience.

The bottom line

Choosing your words wisely is one of the things that separates great leaders from good ones. If you’re ready to elevate your communication to the next level, contact Nichols Strategies today to learn more about our executive coaching, team building and advising.

Our bespoke approach identifies your communication style and creates a coaching plan that matches your strengths and builds on your challenges. We offer weekly sessions to provide thought leadership and training to ensure that you effectively utilize communication strategies to meet your goals and objectives.