Watch Your Tone

Patricia HaddockHave you ever read an e-mail and felt as if you were slapped? Yes, slapped…reading an e-mail. Well that is because of the “tone” of the e-mail was such. You “hear” tone when you read because you tend to say the words silently to yourself as you read. However, with written messages, you cannot hear the person speak, nor see their body language. All you have are words on the paper or display. And this, very often, is the reason why people respond negatively to communication they perceive to be of a harsh tone.

Patricia Haddock, a Human Resources Consultant based on the San Francisco Bay Area, has done a lot of research in this area. Here are some tips and tools that she put forward as part of her teachings in her Business Writing for Results workshops she holds.

Pronouns Make the Tone Personal

  • First Person Singular: I, me, my, mine = Accountable language, readers feel confident that you will do what you promise
  • First Person Plural: We, our, us + Royal “we”, authoritative, use this to represent your department or company
  • Second Person: You, yours = Highly personal, can sound confrontational, avoid using this when delivering bad news
  • Third Person: He, she, it, they, them, his, hers, its, their, theirs = Neutral, can create distance between you and the reader

What is the tone for each sentence?

  1. You did not send the check by the deadline.
  2. We didn’t receive the check by the deadline.
  1. You must enroll by November 30.
  2. Employees must enroll by November 30.
  1. The company lost the bid because the budget breakout was not included.
  2. We lost the bid because we did not send the budget breakout.
  1. You cannot file a claim until you complete the right forms.
  2. A claim can be filed when the proper forms are completed.

Punch the Reader?

In general, active voice is punchier than passive voice. Which sentence has the most punch?

  1. My new program is designed to help you grow your business quickly and easily and achieve new levels of success.
  2. My new program can increase your market share quickly and easily to achieve new levels of success.
  3. Easily increase your market share and put more profits in your pocket within six weeks. My Business Power Tool Program can take your business higher than ever before.

Soften tone with passive voice; punch it up with active voice. You can also affect tone by the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences tend to hit harder than longer sentences.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Focus on the Positive

Your writing will be more successful if you focus on positive, rather than negative, wording and tone. Writing positively is more likely to produce the response you want, be more persuasive, and generate goodwill. In contrast, negative words may generate resistance.

Negative example: You are 2,000 points short of the requirement for an upgrade.

Positive example: You only need 2,000 points to qualify for an upgrade.

You will appear more confident and assertive by stating what something is and what you can do, rather than what something is not or what you cannot do.

Negative example: I cannot process your enrollment without the proper form.

Positive example: I can process your enrollment when I receive the proper form.

You will naturally write either positively or negatively. I tend to write negatively, so if you are like me, take a few minutes to change your negative statements to positive ones and improve your writing and the response you get.

Use the Right Tone

Most people prefer a conversational tone. This doesn’t mean to write the way you speak. Spoken words are processed differently than written words. It means to use a pleasant tone, a variety of short and long sentences, and strong nouns and verbs.

Unsure if you have the right tone? Read it aloud and listen or have someone else read it. I caution people to start soft and firm up the tone when appropriate. For example, a first request for payment should be softer, and the third request, much firmer. If you start with too firm a tone, you have nowhere to go!

[Reproduced from the article of the same title written by Patricia Haddock. The original article can be read here]

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