Hone the Tone

The overall tone of a written message impacts readers just as the tone of voice affects listeners. Here's how to hone the tone of your messages.

message hone the tone

Just as musicians hear tones when reading sheet music, readers hear tones when reading text. What exactly is the tone in writing? It conveys the writer’s attitude (voice) towards the readers. The tone comes through whether you intend it or not. Unlike the spoken word, which is aided by gestures, eye contact, inflections, pitch, movement, and general demeanor, the written word depends on words and punctuation to give it a voice. The overall tone of the written message impacts readers just as the tone of voice affects listeners.

Informal or Formal

Many of the formal business writing rules some people blindly follow date from generations ago. Business writing – like everything else – has become less formal. You no longer need a business suit to be influential in the workplace, and you don’t need to write like it’s the 1950s to get your message across in a businesslike fashion.

Yet countless teachers continue pumping students with the same old rules about the “nasty nevers”: Never use a contraction. Never start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Never split an infinitive. Never end a sentence with a preposition. I could go on. These rules apply to formal writing in technical, legal, medical, or scientific papers or university assignments, but not to everyday business writing. Today’s business readers expect light, readable, conversational, and personable writing.

Contractions: Years ago contractions belonged only in the labor room. Today, however, they’re preferable because they add a personal, conversational tone to the writing. Don’t you agree?

Starting a sentence with “And” or “But”: Starting with a conjunction is a stylistic effect to convey a specific tone. Notice the difference in the following sentences:

  • Bob knew his big presentation was doomed. He had a flat tire and was going to be late, but that was just the beginning.
  • Bob knew his big presentation was doomed. He had a flat tire and was going to be late. But that was just the beginning. (Sets the drama for what’s to come.)

Split infinitives: “To boldly go where no man has gone before” (from the early STAR TREK series) is an example of a rule that’s been consigned to the archives.

Ending a sentence with a preposition:  Winston Churchill mocked this rule with his famous awkward, grammatically correct quote: “This is the sort of language up with which I will not put.” Who would speak like that? Who should write like that? No one.

Keep it Short and Simple (KISS)

One of the shortest missives ever written was penned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping. He wrote: “Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.” NEVER be brusque, but do strive to be short and to the point.

KISS is contrary to what you learned in school. You probably recall a teacher telling you to write a five-page paper on a given topic. If you turned in 4½ pages, you wouldn’t have gotten an A because it wasn’t long enough. Au contraire in business. Keep your writing short and to the point. Be brief. Be professional. Be personable. Imagine that every word you use will cost you $100.

  • Please send us your ideas, and we’ll give them our fullest consideration. (12 words)
  • I would greatly appreciate any ideas or suggestions that you would like to offer. You can be assured that we will give your ideas our fullest consideration. (27 words)
  • Agreed (instead of Came to an agreement)
  • Investigated (instead of Conducted an investigation)
  • Consider (instead of Give consideration to)

The original United States Constitution (laws to govern our great land) was a mere four pages long. The Affordable Care Act is 11,000 pages. Think about that.

Show your Confidence

In business writing, confidence is vital. You come across as wishy-washy when you include hedge words such as I suppose, I think, probably, usually, most likely, maybe, seems, appears to be, indicates, or suggests.

Hedging: I suppose this may be a good strategy for increasing awareness of your brand.

Confident: This is a good approach for increasing awareness of your brand.

Positive v. Negative

Presenting yourself as an optimist is a winning strategy. Using positive words and phrases engages the readers’ goodwill and enhances your voice. Sometimes it’s a matter of saying what you can and will do, rather than what you can’t or won’t do.

  • You can’t use the conference room until my meeting ends. (Negative)
  • As soon as I wrap up the meeting, the room will be all yours. (Positive and informal)

Use the negative voice strategically, not as a default. Negative words can include error, damage, impossible, mistake, refuse, stop, little value, hardly, and others. See how the following missive can be positive or negative, depending on the writer’s intention:

Positive: With nearly 100 hours into [project], we’re pleased to let you know that we’ve completed 60 of the deviations. However, the remaining 8 are very problematic in that. . . (Painting a positive picture)

Negative: With nearly 100 hours into [project], 8 deviations have not been accomplished. These remaining 8 are very problematic in that…. (Strategically expressing frustration that the project is taking too long.)

Active v. Passive

Using an active voice is a major factor in projecting a tone that’s alive, interesting, engaging, and conversational. The subject (person, place, or thing) performing the action starts the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, creating a tone that’s weak and lifeless.

Active:   The company requires the staff to watch a safety video each year.

Passive: The staff is required by the company to watch a safety video each year.

Active:    Your supervisor will approve the workflow.

Passive:  The workflow must be approved by your supervisor.

The following are reasons to strategically use the passive voice:

  • Take the attention off yourself: Notice how often advertisers use the words “you” and “your.” They know the importance of focusing on readers. Good business writers should as well. “You’ll be happy to hear. . .“ rather than “I’m happy to tell you. . . ”
  • Focus on the action: Dennis was cited for his outstanding achievement. (The person who gave Dennis the award isn’t important; Dennis is.)
  • Hide or be vague: The building was left unlocked. (Protecting the neglectful person.)
  • Unknown subject: The report was left on my desk. (Who left it?)
  • Technical, legal, medical, or scientific publications or university assignments. These are considered formal writing.

Pronouns Perplexities

Many people are now expressing pronouns by which they’d like to be addressed and state them in the signature block of their emails. An individual’s preference may be “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers,” “they/them/ theirs” or ”ze/hir.” The experience of being misgendered can be hurtful, angering, and even distracting.

Punctuate for your Voice

Punctuation helps determine your voice. You can make your writing sound excitable, authoritative, or empathetic. Or you can build suspense, make readers stop, or get them to rush ahead – just with the right punctuation. (There are many more punctuation marks than mentioned here, but these are the primary ones that give voice to your writing.)

Periods: This word derives from the Latin periodus, meaning “a complete sentence” or full stop. A period is akin to a knife that slices sentences to the required length.

Commas:  This is the period’s quiet sister, creating a soft pause rather than a full stop.

Question marks: Questions engage readers. Notice the difference between the following sentences: “Have you ever wondered how to can get more email subscribers?” as opposed to “Here’s how to get more email subscribers.”

Exclamation marks: These are so overused, they’ve become the punctuation marks that cry wolf. When used sparingly (and singularly) they can express enthusiasm, surprise, emphasis, excitement, or even anger. Don’t use them in formal writing!!! Other options that add emphasis are typing all caps or underscoring a single word or two.

Parentheses: Always used in pairs, these curved marks surround and downplay additional information in the form of a single word, fragment, or complete sentence.

Em dashes: As opposed to parentheses, they amplify what lies within.

Read the following sentences aloud, and notice how the emphasis changes:

Em dashes accentuate the incidental: I’ve noticed – and this is my personal observation – that when small businesses use their names as part of the company they’re more reliable. Perhaps it’s because they’re putting their names and reputations out there.

Parentheses de-emphasize the incidental: I’ve noticed (and this is my personal observation) that when small businesses use their names as part of the company they’re more reliable. Perhaps it’s because they’re putting their names and reputations out there.

Commas neutralize the incidental: I’ve noticed, and this is my personal observation, that when small businesses use their names as part of the company they’re more reliable. Perhaps it’s because they’re putting their names and reputations out there.

Double Check Before Sending

These guidelines apply to the tone of ALL writing, but pay special attention to emails because people often compose them on the fly with little regard for a tone that may be more abrupt, angry, chatty, or negative than intended.

  • Do I sound confident, professional, and sincere?
  • Are there any inappropriate words?
  • Did I eliminate words and thoughts that don’t add value?
  • If I used the passive voice or negative words, did I do so strategically?
  • Is my writing focused on my readers, not on me?
  • Does the punctuation reflect my intention and voice?
  • Did I remember to include the appreciated words of “please” and “thank you”?
Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been a training professional for the last 25 years. She’s the author of 25 books, including “New Rules For Today’s Workplace,” “Speaking Your Way to Success,” Business “Writing for Dummies,” and several other Dummies books. She’s been quoted in The New York Times and other publications and has appeared on radio and television networks throughout the United States.