Change your tone — and change the response

Rhiannon Davies | July 28, 2020

Tone is one of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re writing, well, anything really.  The tone of your writing will decide whether people do what your message asks them — or not.

Official communications during the global COVID crisis have shown us some super-interesting things.

If you want people to do something over long periods of time, like maintaining social distancing and staying indoors, ordering them about like a drill sergeant simply doesn’t work. People might do what you want for the first couple of days, but the compliance level drops substantially after that.

Image, a particularly grumpy-looking sergeant major

Ordering people about like a Sergeant-Major doesn’t work as well as you might think. Image by British Comedy Guide / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 11 principles for effective messages

Professor Chris Bonell of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been studying messages dealing with social distancing. His team has identified 11 key principles seen in the most effective messages. Of those principles, 6 address tone.

Download the 11 Principles journal article [PDF, 160KB]

People like helping each other

Professor Bonell’s study shows that people are more likely to act in the interests of others rather than themselves. Someone might ignore instructions based on individualist actions like ‘Protect yourself from COVID-19’ because they feel that they are in a low-risk category. People will react more readily to messages that suggest protecting groups like their family, social groups, or the nation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern referred to New Zealanders as a ‘Team of 5 million’ and gave us an incentive to stay inside during Alert Level 3.

Watch the ‘Team of 5 million’ TVNZ news clip

Image, copy of the Slow the Spread poster

This poster is an excellent example of tone used well. The instructions are given clearly and kindly. We’re asked to keep other people safe. We’re called on to work together as a team.
Image by / Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

People want to identify with positive values

This principle is based on the unwritten social rules that people obey in day-to-day life. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ‘Be kind’ message is an excellent example of this. This message focuses on positive action that everyone can take, and doesn’t give any space to undesirable behaviour. Changing the message deprives those negative ideas of metaphorical oxygen, and doesn’t give them a chance to take root in the mind of the reader.

Watch the ‘Be Kind’ TVNZ news clip

People want to be encouraged, not scared

Messages that try to scare people into compliance with an ‘or else’, or that try to create disgust at other people’s behaviour, are not helpful. They result in people only complying most of the time, not all of the time. In a global pandemic, you want 100 percent compliance.

In 2018, the Ministry of Social Development’s Better Letters Project revamped the way they wrote to people receiving assistance through benefits or student loans. The tone in their external letters and emails went from cold, confusing, and threatening, to friendly and instructive. The Ministry helped more people, and the people they helped no longer felt anxious, dehumanised, or bullied.

Read more about the Better Letters Project

People want to be spoken to as adults

People need to understand why they’re being asked to do the thing you’re asking them. The UK Prime Minister’s initial orders for lockdown are a prime example of an authoritarian message. The instructions have a very brief explanation, but the entire tone of his message is ‘Do as you’re told and stay home because I say so’. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sounds like a grumpy parent.

‘Because I say so’ as a key message only works in the short term. ‘Because I say so’ is going to be met with ‘Why?’ As with children, there’s only so long ‘Why’ can remain unanswered before compliance crumbles. ‘Because I said so’ doesn’t work on children: why would it work on adults?

Watch the ‘Stay At Home’ news clip

Striking the right tone makes all the difference

It’s easy to fall into the trap of a brusque tone and create authoritarian, individualistic messages — especially if you have to write instructions about something important or dangerous.

But people don’t respond well to those kinds of messages. A warm, friendly tone that doesn’t intimidate, isolate, or bully will yield far better results.

How Write can help you with your tone

Our series of videos on tone takes you on a personal adventure into the often subtle but always present power of tone in writing at work.

Sign up for Tone Matters at Write Online

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.