5 foolproof ways to master tone

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Tips to find the right tone
Tips to find the right tone

Paying attention to how you “talk on paper” will help you sound affable and engaging in your writing.

As a boy, whenever my parents cautioned me to watch my tone, I doubt they meant the timbre of my voice. What they were referring to was my attitude—the defiance they detected in the way I stood or spoke.

Writing, too, carries a certain tone. Following these 5 guidelines from The Elements of Business Writing by Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly will help you communicate in ways that show respect for your audience and invite receptivity.

1.   Write to express, not to impress.

For memos and e-mails, it's usually best to adopt a casual writing style. Avoid trying to sound important or to show off your mastery of technical knowledge. Use small words (as you would everyday tools) instead of big words.

Stilted: The agency has deemed it necessary to terminate its contract with Botch Printing.

Direct: The agency fired Botch Printing.

2.   Prefer informal to formal language.

Who would you be quicker to respond to—someone who speaks in a friendly, conversational tone or someone who is cold and officious, or seems intent on blowing pipe smoke in your face? Avoid sounding like a bureaucrat. Choose the plain and accessible over the antiquated and “professional.”

Avoid: Enclosed please find the requested documents.

Better: Here are the documents you requested.

3.   Use positive words instead of negative words.

People bristle on hearing certain words. Pay attention to your choice of phrasing. Hearing the wrong word at the wrong time can put your audience on the defensive. The following examples come straight from Blake and Bly's book:

 "You claim": This phrase says to the reader, “You say so, but I don't believe you.”

 "Failed to": Is harsh and insulting; suggests incompetence.

 "Neglected to": Implies willful misconduct.

 "Lack of": Communicates personal criticism.

 4.   In a sentence containing both good and bad news, give the bad news first.

Nobody likes to deliver unwelcome news, but sometimes it's unavoidable. A tactic that Blake and Bly recommend is to place the good news at the end of the sentence. This way you can close with a positive message.

Example: Although we have no position available in market research, I am sending your resume to someone who has a job opening in product management.

5.   Write to change behavior, not to express anger.

Avoid sending a memo or an e-mail composed in frustration or anger. Instead, wait until you have calmed down. Then, go over your content, replacing the provocative and inflammatory with the constructive. Keep these tips in mind:

—Phrase criticism in a positive manner.

—Say what you like as well as what you dislike.

—Don't just state the problem—suggest a course of action.

Adopting the right tone encourages cooperation and teamwork. In addition, it keeps people off your case, alright?

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