Your message is composed of two factors: what you say and how you say it. Tone is “how you say it”. Tone reflects your attitude toward both the reader and the subject of your message. Your document’s tone affects your reader’s response to your written message as much as your vocal tone affects a listener’s response to a spoken message. In deciding on your tone, start with the Three Ps: purpose, person, and point.
· What is your purpose?
Every communication has a tone; your job is to use the tone that will best help you fulfill your purpose with your reader. Should you be warm and friendly? Clear and direct? Formal and indirect? It depends on the result you are aiming for.
· How will your reader respond to this tone?
Although business writing is generally becoming more informal, use your judgment to find the right tone. Ultimately, the best approach is to put yourself in your reader’s place and consider the message from his or her viewpoint.
· What tone best suits your point?
You won’t use the same tone in a condolence note as you would in a demand for payment or an invitation to lunch. Your tone should suit your message.
In general, your tone should be:
· At an appropriate level of difficulty
· At an appropriate level of formality.
Formal vs. Informal Tone
Business writing in general has become more informal and conversational than in times past. Nevertheless, a formal tone is often right. A formal tone contains no contractions, no slang, fewer personal pronouns like I and you, and, sometimes, longer forms of words. The passive voice is more common in formal writing. Sentences are often longer. Typically, a formal tone is appropriate for people outside your organization.
You might mix formal and informal elements to create a tone that is warm but professional.
An informal tone is more appropriate for colleagues and peers. Even in an informal business document, however, avoid excessive use of slang, acronyms, or emoticons.
When writing to senior management, be as straightforward and direct as possible. You can use a mixture of formal and informal language, as long as you make your point clear and brief.
How can you create a warm, friendly tone?
· A warm tone is conversational.
· Personal pronouns such as you and I/we are warmer than third-person pronouns such as it and one.
· In a warm document, you can show empathy with the reader. I realize this process is difficult for you… might work in an informal letter about a credit application, but it would not appear in the formal correspondence.
· Polite, courteous comments build relationships. Please, thank you, would you mind, I would be grateful if and similar terms add an element of good will to your message.
· Some colloquialisms are acceptable. You can refer to your kids rather than your children.
· Some contractions are acceptable. You can write don’t instead of do not, can’t instead of cannot, and so forth.
It is never appropriate to use profanity, crude slang, racist, sexist, or other discriminatory terms in business writing, no matter how informal you are being.
Your tone can make the difference between your reader accepting your message and rejecting it. When you re-read your work before sending it (which I hope you do), consider the tone as well as the content. Your results may depend on the tone you take.
©2013 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
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