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Strike the Right Tone

Your writing tone is heard loud and clear through your choice of words.  Discover how to assure that your messages are well receive even when the information may not be exactly what your readers want to hear. Just as important as what you say is how you say it. Be aware of the tone that underlies your message and reflects your attitude toward the reader. Too often business writers are overly concerned with the content and pay scant attention to the weight their words carry. Use these tips to assure that you select tactful words and strike the right tone.

1.   Use the “you” approach. Readers are interested in what’s in it for them, not what you and your organization desire.  So don’t moan to the reader, We are so disappointed that you haven’t taken advantage of our offer. Instead write, We’ve extended our offer through May 31, so you can still take advantage of special savings.

2.  Reduce words that are “negative” or sound demanding or patronizing. Words like can’t, won’t, not and never and prefixes like un- or  mis- may subtly offend. So instead of saying, Don’t hesitate to call, tell the reader to Call me at…. The peremptory tone of We need you to sign, is neutralized in Please sign. Turn the insulting You’re mistaken  or You claim into Let me explain the issue from our perspective.  The presumptuous and patronizing tone of Thank you in advance improves with a simple Thank you.

3.  Understand the emotional weight of words—their connotations. Choose positive or neutral words to deliver most messages. Consider the difference suggested when you call someone slender rather than skinny, self-confident rather than arrogant, or prudent rather than cheap. Ask yourself what message you really intend to deliver.   The English language is rich enough to routinely provide you with more than one vocabulary option. Choose the right word for your situation and your reader.

4. Put a positive spin on your message. Tell what you, or your readers, CAN do, not what you, or they, CAN'T do. Almost every “no” has a flip side. A form letter may state: We cannot process your application because you did not complete all the sections. Yet it would be just as easy to deliver the information another way: We will process your application as soon as you complete the highlighted sections and return it to us. Note that the negative example tells the writer what he or she has done wrong. It’s cold, bureaucratic and just plain negative. The kinder, “can do” tone is achieved by a 180-degree shift in perspective. It sounds helpful and encouraging.

5.  Write the way you talk, more or less. Be direct and conversational.   Aim to express, not to impress. Resist inflation. Don’t write, After a comprehensive appraisal of the circumstances, when all you mean is, After studying the facts. By the same token, you’re wasting words by asking for permission in the cliché, Allow me to express our appreciation.  A brief We appreciate sounds much more sincere and sensible. Similarly, the cold tone of We are in receipt of is eliminated in We received  These useful guidelines help you to be consistently sensitive to word choice. You’ll anticipate the reader’s response and will find it natural to write in a manner that appeals—or, at the very least, does not offend.

Analyze your reader. Anticipate the effect of the message. View your purpose from the perspective of can not can’t. Read your message aloud before sending. Finally, if you have a particularly difficult communication or just need some personal coaching, take advantage of our Grammar Hotline.  It’s free, convenient and provides peace of mind..


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