Help! My tone is polluting my writing

‘Don’t look at me in that tone of voice!’

We’ve all had that phrase flung at us before — anyone else remember being fourteen? How was it possible to communicate soooo much with a twitch of the lip or a flicker of the eyeball…

Because we’re human, that’s why. Our brains are primed to pick up all things spoken and unspoken in order to reach our own conclusions about what someone is really communicating.

In business, it’s the same thing. The words we put on the page or screen tell people so much more than just the facts about your subject. This extra information leaks out of your words. If you’re not careful, it can drown your message and ruin your reputation.

Your tone can be the difference between getting the outcomes you want and getting offside with the world.

Image, grey cat with suspicious angry eyes.

What have I said?! Image by Skitterphoto / CC0

Manage your message

Ask yourself about the writer of this sentence:

As we have previously stated it is important to note that your application cannot be accepted if you fail to complete it before 31 December.

I bet you can picture them already. You can imagine their face, their clothing, their world — using those notoriously unreliable but predictable mental shortcuts we humans have. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Now try this one:

A friendly reminder — we can accept your application if you send it before 31 December.

Notice the difference? Same information, but this time from a human. No toxic leak. Instead, we’re probably thinking what a helpful person from a helpful organisation.

Image, sign saying toxic leak.

Are unpleasant messages leaking out of your writing? Image by Tim Green / CC BY 2.0

Humans are experts at being human

Happily, human-to-human communication is one thing that artificial intelligence is yet to crack. It’s subtle, sophisticated, and deceptively simple. Our readers can read between the lines, make snap judgements on first impression, understand what’s not being said, weigh up choices, and connect the dots. Writers need to harness this knowledge and write with a tone that connects.

Image, close up of electric guitar tone knob.

Is it time to tune up your tone? Image by Breakingpic / CC0

Top tips to tune up your tone

How do you write with a tone that connects with people, sends the right message, and builds trust between you and your readers?

You can show empathy through anticipating how your reader feels and what they need to know first. You can choose everyday words and string them together in shorter sentences that make it clear who is doing what. You can be deliberate about choosing words that suit your reader and the situation rather than falling back on clichés. You can lose the jargon. You can choose personal pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘you’. And you can explain what to do, rather than what not to do.

To find out more about the powerful role tone plays in your life and get a set of tools to get your tone right, join our elearning course: Tone Matters.

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