Tone matters

Colleen Trolove | August 17, 2016

Tone is what gives the impression that the writer is a human who sees you as another human too. You warm to a writer’s message when you can tell that they’ve actively tried to imagine you and to anticipate what you might want to know.

I read many, many documents as part of my work in preparing writing workshops. Writers commonly come across as heavy, bureaucratic, condescending, or out of touch. When I meet the writers on workshops, they’re nothing like that. They’re interesting and interested people, vital, intelligent, and friendly.

So why does the tone of their writing fail to match their personalities?

They confuse formality with professionalism. They think that to be professional, you have to be formal. ‘The more important or serious the piece of writing, the more formal the tone must be.’ So a paper to a Board or a notification about an amended Act can be ridiculously, even comically, stuffy.

Professionalism has very little to do with formality

Think of Jucy, the car rental company — informal to the point of cheekiness. And in my experience, fantastically professional. I once totalled one of their rental cars. (It was all my fault. I ran head on into a logging truck.) From memory, it took one short phone call to sort the whole mess out. If I had to fill in a form, it was so painless I don’t remember it.

Image of Jucy rental van

Jucy rentals. Image by Chris Hills / CC BY-SA 2.0

Think of Powershop, another company that prides itself on being irreverent. And they give you power. Informal; professional.

Make your tone match your personality

Try matching your tone to your personality. If you’re a nice human, this should work out fine. If however, you’re a Jucy kind of person in a regulatory-body kind of job, you might have to try the trick below.

Match your tone to your organisation’s values. If your organisation’s values are to be authoritative, accessible, and transparent, you may have to eliminate your exclamation marks, emojis, and ‘cheers’ sign-offs. But PLEASE don’t fall into the trap of overdoing it just because your colleagues do! Come across as authoritative, accessible, and transparent, not bureaucratic and heavy. Make sure your readers know you’re a human who sees them as another human too.

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