Should you say ‘I’ or ‘we’?

by Tom Albrighton 23 November 2009 Freelancing

‘Do you need a wee?’ I wonder how many times I’ve asked my little daughter that question. If only I was given a penny every time she stubbornly refuses to spend one.

And, in a different sense, many of my freelance, sole-trader or consultant clients face the same question: when to go for a ‘we’ and when ‘I’ is sufficient. In other words, they have to decide whether to position their one-person enterprises as companies (‘we’) or as individuals (‘I’) in their marketing communications.

Yes, behind the façade, ABC is just one man

Yes, behind the façade, ABC is just one man

There’s plenty of precedent for individuals speaking in the first person plural. In the days of the divine right of kings, sovereigns adopted the ‘royal we’ as an indication that they spoke on behalf of a nation, or as both of the ‘king’s two bodies’ (the notional ‘body politic’ and the physical ‘body natural’). The tradition continues today. In publishing, the ‘editorial we’ is affected by individuals opining on behalf of a newspaper, as opposed to expounding their own personal views.

Both these examples show that using ‘we’ puts distance between the authorial voice and the individual writer or speaker, while ‘I’ positions the author as a single person and nothing more. ‘We’ is used when a conceptual entity such as a company, newspaper or nation state is ‘speaking’, while ‘I’ denotes that we are listening to an individual.

So, which is right for your one-person business? It all depends on your own personality, how you plan to do business what you feel comfortable about in terms of marketing and promotion.

If you’ve got a catchy or memorable name (unlike me), there’s a case for trading under it. And if you feel comfortable building up brand equity in that name through self-promotion, networking and personal exposure (again, unlike me), then it probably makes most sense to use your own name. If you choose this path, you should speak as ‘I’.

On the other hand, if you want to distance or differentiate yourself from your work, and/or give the impression that your business is larger than it is, you’ll want to position yourself as a company and choose a non-personal name for it. This is the road I went down – as I’ve blogged elsewhere, I find freelancing much easier to handle with a clear division between ‘me’ and ‘my work’. Although ‘ABC Copywriting’ is nothing more than a legal/financial ‘wrapper’ around the work I do, I still find it easier to make decisions for the good of ‘the company’ rather than myself as an individual.

The half-way house would be to use your own name in conjunction with ‘associates’ or ‘company’ – positioning yourself as a firm, but making it clear that you’re the principal. Here you can use either ‘I’ or ‘we’ – but it’s probably worth choosing one or the other and using it consistently.

The issue is definitely worth thinking about, because there’s a risk of mixed messages. If you speak as ‘I’ under a company banner, who is speaking? An individual on their own behalf, or a director on behalf of the firm? Should we expect personal opinion, or company line? Equally, if you use ‘we’ when you position yourself as a person, it begs the question of who else is involved in your enterprise.

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