Choosing a Tone for Your Business Writing
Tone is an important element in business writing. Presentation trainers often state that the meaning of a spoken message is communicated 55 percent by body language, 38 percent by tone of voice, and only 7 percent by the words. Actually, this formula has been thoroughly debunked and denied by its creator, the psychologist Albert Mehrabian, because it misinterpreted a very limited study. However, it does suggest some important points for writing.
Written messages come without body language or tone of voice. One result is that humor in written messages — particularly sarcasm or irony — is risky. When readers can’t see the wink in your eye or hear the playfulness in your voice, they take you literally. So, refrain from subtle humor unless you’re really secure with your reader’s ability to “get it.” Better yet: Be cautious at all times because such assumptions are dangerous.
But even lacking facial expression and gesture, writing does carry its own tone, and this directly affects how readers receive and respond to messages. Written tone results from a combination of word choice, sentence structure, and other technical factors.
Also important are less tangible elements that are hard to pin down. You’ve probably received messages that led you to sense the writer was upset, angry, resistant, or amused, even if only a few words were involved. Sometimes even a close reading of the text doesn’t explain what’s carrying these emotions, but you just sense the writer’s strong feelings.
When you’re the writer, be conscious of your message’s tone. Consistently control the tone so that it supports your goals and avoids undermining your message. You’ve probably found that showing emotion in the workplace rarely gives you an advantage, usually the opposite. Writing is similar. Tone conveys feelings, and if you’re not in control of your emotions when you write, tone betrays you.
Aligning tone with the occasion, relationship, and culture
Pause before writing and think about the nature of the message. Obviously if you’re communicating bad news, you don’t want to sound chipper and cheery. Always think of your larger audience, too. If the company made more money last month because it eliminated a department, best not to treat the new profits as a triumph. Current staff members probably aren’t happy about losing colleagues and are worried about their own jobs.
On the other hand, if you’re communicating about a staff holiday party, sounding gloomy and bored doesn’t generate high hopes for a good time. The same is true if you’re offering an opportunity or assigning a nuisance job: Find the enticing side.
Just as in face-to-face situations, the moods embedded in your writing are contagious. If you want an enthusiastic response, then write with enthusiasm. If you want people to welcome a change you’re announcing, sound positive and confident, not fearful or peevish and resentful, even if you don’t personally agree with the change.
Make conscious decisions about how formal to sound. After you work in an organization for a while, you typically absorb its culture without really noticing. In fact, most people don’t realize their organizations have a culture until they run into problems when introducing change or a high-level hire. If you’re new to the place, observe how things work so you can avoid booby-trapping yourself.
Read through files of correspondence, email, reports, as well as websites and online material. Analyze what your colleagues feel is appropriate in content and in writing style. What communication media are used? How formal is the tone? Adopt the guidelines you see enacted.
Every passing year seems to decrease the formality of business communication. Just as in choosing what to wear to work, people are dressing down their writing. This less formal style can come across as friendlier, simpler, and more direct than in earlier years — and should. But business informal doesn’t mean you should address an executive or board member casually, use abbreviations or emoji your reader may not like, or fail to edit and proofread every message. Those are gaffes much like wearing torn jeans to work or to a client meeting.
And you want to be especially careful if you’re writing to someone in another country, even an English-speaking one. Most countries still prefer a more formal form of communication than American business English.
Writing as your authentic self
Authentic means being a straightforward, unpretentious, honest, trustworthy person — and writer. It doesn’t mean trying for a specific writing style. Clarity is always the goalpost. This absolutely holds true even for materials written to impress. A proposal, marketing brochure, or request for funding gains nothing by looking or sounding pompous and weighty.
Never try to impress anyone with how educated and literate you are. Studies show that in reality people believe that those who write clearly and use simple words are smarter than those whose writing abounds in fancy phrases and complicated sentences.
Smiling when you say it
People whose job is answering the phone are told by customer service trainers to smile before picking up the call. Smiling physically affects your throat and vocal chords, and your tone of voice. You sound friendly and cheerful and may help the person on the other end of the phone feel that way, too.
The idea applies to writing as well. You need not smile before you write (though it’s an interesting technique to try), but be aware of your own mood and how easily it transfers to your messages and documents.
This doesn’t mean that your feelings of anger, impatience, or resentment aren’t well-grounded, but displaying them rarely helps your cause. Nobody likes to get negative, whiny, nasty messages that put them on the defensive or make them feel under attack. Suppose you’ve asked the purchasing department to buy a table for your office and were denied without explanation. You could write to both your boss and the head of purchasing a note such as the following:
Hal, Jeanne: I just can’t believe how indifferent purchasing is to my work and what I need to do it. This ignorance is really offensive. I’m now an Associate Manager responsible for a three-person team and regular meetings are essential to my …
Put yourself in the recipients’ places to see how bad the impact of such a message can be — for you. At the least, you’re creating unnecessary problems, and at worst, perhaps permanent bad feelings. Why not write (and just to the purchasing officer) this, instead:
Hi, Hal. Do you have a minute to talk about my request for a small conference table? I was surprised to find that it was denied and want to share why it’s important to my work.
The best way to control your tone is to let emotion-laden matters rest for whatever time you can manage. Even a ten-minute wait can make a difference. Overnight is better, if possible, in important situations. You’re far more likely to accomplish what you want when you come across as logical, reasonable, and objective. Positive and cheerful is even better.
People naturally prefer being around positive, dynamic, enthusiastic people, and they prefer receiving messages with the same qualities. Resolve not to complain, quibble, or criticize in writing. People are much more inclined to give you what you want when you’re positive — and they see you as a problem-solver rather than a problem-generator.