Tone in Business Writing
What is Tone?
"Tone in writing refers to the writers attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as ones tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges" (Ober 88).
A business writer should consider the tone of their message, whether they are writing a memo, letter, report, or any type of business document. Tone is present in all communication activities. Ultimately, the tone of a message is a reflection of the writer and it does affect how the reader will perceive the message.
How can I make sure my messages have the appropriate tone?
The writer should consider several things when preparing to write. The following questions will help you to determine the appropriate tone for your message.
Why am I writing this document?
You should take time to consider the purpose of your document in order
to determine how you should express the message you wish to convey. Obviously,
you want the message to reach your audience, and you will probably want
the reader to take some action in response to your message.
Suzy is writing a job acceptance letter to an employer but is unsure of the tone she should take in the message. She has decided to accept the position. When she asks herself, "What is my intent upon writing?" she answers, "I want to accept the position, thank the company for the offer, and establish goodwill with my new co-workers." As she writes the letter she quickly assumes a tone that is appreciative for the offer and enthusiastic about beginning a new job.
Who am I writing to and what do I want them to understand?
Who is your audience? Whether it is an employer or a fellow worker,
it is essential that you consider your reader before writing any document.
Your message will be much more effective if you tailor the document to
reach your specific audience. The message you wish to express must be
written in a way that will effectively reach the reader.
The reader is likely to interpret these phrases to mean that Bob isnt
really qualified for the position or that he doesnt really want
Clearly, Bob is not assuming an appropriate tone. He must consider that:
If Bob were to consider these things he may rewrite his cover letter
to include such phrases as: "You can reach me at 555-2233; I look
forward to hearing from you." "My qualifications make me an
excellent applicant for this position
What kind of tone should I use?
Fortunately, you can use the same kind of tone for most business messages. "The business writer should strive for an overall tone that is confident, courteous, and sincere; that uses emphasis and subordination appropriately; that contains nondiscriminatory language; that stresses the "you" attitude; and that is written at an appropriate level of difficulty" (Ober 88). The only major exceptions to these guidelines are when you need to write a negative business message, such as when you deny a job offer or a customer request.
Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when considering what kind of tone to use in your letters and how to present information in that tone:
You can feel confident if you have carefully prepared and are knowledgeable
about the material you wish to express. The manner in which you write
should assume a confident tone as well. As you prepare business documents,
you want the reader to do as you ask or to accept your decision. In order
to make the document effective, you must write confidently.
Be Courteous and Sincere
A writer builds goodwill for him or herself by using a tone that is
polite and sincere. It is important to strive for sincerity in tone because
without sincerity, politeness can sound condescending
Use Appropriate Emphasis and Subordination
You can help your readers to understand which of your ideas you consider most important by using emphasis and subordination. You can choose from a variety of strategies to emphasize an idea or to subordinate it.
To emphasize an idea, place it in a short sentence. A short and simple sentence will most effectively convey an important idea. You can provide further explanation, sufficient examples, or evidence in following sentences. To subordinate an idea, place it in a compound sentence.
Ideas placed in the first paragraph of a document or message receive
the most emphasis, followed by information placed in the last paragraph.
You can subordinate an idea by placing it in middle paragraphs of your
message because these paragraphs receive the least emphasis.
Note: In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally--though not always-- clearer and more direct than those in passive voice. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
You can also emphasize and subordinate information by letting readers
know how you feel about the information.
The amount of space that you devote to an idea will help convey the ideas
importance to the reader. Discuss ideas that you want to emphasize in
more detail than you do ideas that you want to subordinate.
Repeating important ideas is good way to emphasize them as well. Be careful not to overuse this strategy; you will lose your readers interest if they believe you are needlessly repeating information.
Any information that stands out from the rest of the text will be emphasized. Bolding, underlining, CAPITALIZING, indenting, and highlighting will convey emphasis to your reader. Do not use this strategy frequently or the design effect will be lost.
Use Nondiscriminatory Language
Nondiscriminatory language is language that treats all people equally. It does not use any discriminatory words, remarks, or ideas. It is very important that the business writer communicate in a way that expresses equality and respect for all individuals. Discriminatory language can come between your message and your reader. Make sure your writing is free of sexist language and free of bias based on such factors as race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, and disability.
Stress the Benefits For the Reader
Write from the readers perspective. Instead of simply writing from the perspective of what the reader can do for you, write in a way that shows what you can do for the reader. A reader will often read a document wondering "Whats in it for me?" It is your job to tailor your document accordingly.
Not: I am processing your order tomorrow.
Write at an Appropriate Level of Difficulty
It is essential that you write at an appropriate level of difficulty in order to clearly convey your message. Consider your audience and prepare your writing so that the reader will clearly understand what it is that you are saying. In other words, prepare your style of reading to match the reading abilities of your audience. Do not use complex passages or terms that the reader will not understand. Accordingly, do not use simple terms or insufficient examples if the reader is capable of understanding your writing. A competent writer will match the needs and abilities of their reader and find the most effective way to communicate with a particular reader.
What kind of tone should I use with a negative message?
It is especially important to consider tone when you are writing a negative message. In a negative message, such as a document that rejects a job offer or denies a request, be sure to assume a tone that is gracious and sincere. Thank the reader for their input or involvement and carefully state that you cannot comply with their wishes. Follow this response with an explanation as necessary.
It is best not to draw attention to the person performing the action that will likely displease the reader. Therefore, you may want to avoid using active voice when delivering negative messages. You might also avoid stressing the reader benefits unless there are clear benefits to the negative message. It can sound insincere to stress reader benefits in a negative message.
In some negative messages, you may need to address faults or issues concerning
an individual. When writing messages such as this, maintain a professional
tone that does not attack the individual but that makes your position
on the issue clear.
For more information about tone, see: Ober, Scott. Contemporary Business Communication. 2nd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
This handout written by Victoria Kellough and Angela Laflen.
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