Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 12: Avoiding "I Can't"

Here's an easy one—so easy that I'm surprised how few people practice this principle. For the sake of good tone, avoid placing side by side I and can't. (The same applies to we can't or the company can't.) Especially if you are in a service business, the point of your job is to tell your readers what you can do, not 
what you can't do. 

In the examples that follow, the first draft seems defensive, dismissive, or accusatory, while the second draft appears positive, committed, or considerate.

Draft 1: I can't help you until you pay me.
Draft 2: I can help you when you pay me. 

Draft 1: We can't process your application since you did not complete the form.
Draft 2: We can process your application once you complete the form.

Draft 1: The company cannot finish the work because the client did not supply the materials.
Draft 2: The company will finish the work upon receipt of the materials.

At times, we may have no choice but to use a negative construction. For instance, we might have to write we can't when a customer insists on the assistance without the prerequisite after we have already used the positive expression. But we should make I can our default. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 11: Using a Complimentary Close

Salutations and complimentary closes should match in style. We wouldn't want to open with a "Hey Kim" and close with "Sincerely", or open with a "Dear Ms. Patel" and close with "See ya later." 

What I wrote in the last post, about salutations, applies to complimentary closes. I also referred to a 2009 WORDS ON THE LINE post advising how to choose the best salutation and complimentary close in email. In general, the best close ranges from none at all when rushed to Thanks when grateful to My best when hopeful to Sincerely when formal.

A final suggestion: let your organizational culture guide you. Notice how respected employees in your company close their messages and follow suit. If you run a single-person or small business like me, then notice how the good writers among your clients and vendors write. Chances are you'll choose well. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 10: Using a Salutation

I posted on salutations before, but the question comes up at least once a week in training sessions, so this series on tone seems a perfect occasion to resurrect the issue.

I still stand behind the two suggestions in the second paragraph of that post; first, address your readers as you would when talking to them; second, follow the lead of respected coworkers. After nearly a decade since that post, I would add a third: walk a mile in your readers' shoes. If they merit a communication from you, they deserve the respect that comes with it. 

Yes, the world has gotten quicker, and yes, we communicate more informally with people. Most people do not get offended when total strangers start an email by greeting them by first name, as in Hi Phil. If they did, they'd be angry most of the time. But such a familiar greeting gets under their skin like a stubborn tick when writers, regardless of their age, are selling them. And it makes them hit the ceiling like a loose spring when they are receiving customer service for the first time. 

If you're unsure of the best way to greet someone, err on the side of formality. Better to be called a stuffed shirt than to be called rude. Start with Dear Dr. Mailer, Dear Ms. Miller, or Dear Mr. Muller. Then wait for your readers to break the wall of formality, and let the first two tips from that 2009 post kick in.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 9: Apologizing Unconditionally

"We're sorry you're upset about the options available to you, but our policy states ..."

"I apologize for the late arrival of your package; however, higher than usual demand ..."

"The company regrets this price increase, but rising expenses ..."

Puleeze. Puleeze. Puleeze. We see through your shallow, insincere apologies. The word apology can mean a justification or an expression of regret. If we want to justify, then we have nothing to apologize for; if we want to express regret, then we should not negate the regret. 

An apology should be unconditional. We should clearly assert it and follow it with an acknowledgement, assurance, adjustment, or all three, as you can see in United CEO's Oscar Munoz's apology email to MileagePlus members. An acknowledgment is a statement telling our readers they deserved better treatment. An assurance is a promise to clean up our act. An adjustment is a means of making up to our readers by granting a favor. Here is a rewrite of each statement at the beginning of this post:

1. With an Acknowledgment: "We're sorry the options we've made available to you do not suit your needs. We know how important a wide range of choices is to a discerning customer, and we realize we have fallen short of that expectation ..."

2. With an Assurance: "I apologize for the late arrival of your package and want you to know my commitment to make this a one-off situation ..."

3. With an Adjustment: "The company needs to increase prices to cover rising production costs, but we will stand by our pre-increase rate for this order ..."

Make those apologies sincere, and they will be believable.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

On Writing Terrific Emails

Students in all my courses tell me their key takeaways, so I know my tips on writing help them. And it's especially nice to hear when one of my books benefits someone, so I was thrilled to learn from Richard O'Rourke, Associate Director, Office of Admissions Recruitment and Outreach for the University of Illinois at Chicago, how The Art of E-mail Writing transformed an entire department. 

Mr. O'Rourke wrote, "Your book is amazing – we incorporated it into our counselor training here at the University of Illinois. It’s made a very positive impact on the quality of our work. Every new hire now gets a copy." 

O'Rourke's own highly instructive, thought-provoking, and well-written article on email marketing in a hectic environment is a must-read for social media managers and online content developers in any field. In it, he crystallizes a process he has cultivated to enable his staff to write with authority. I appreciate the proactive approach he and his team have taken to ensure their writing shines. Go, Fighting Illini!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Don't Judge a Banana by Its Cover

Check out that banana. Before today, if that were your only banana and you offered it to me—and if I were really hungry—I'd politely decline your gracious offer. I would have decided based on the assumption that I know a good banana when I see one. My experience over six-plus decades told me that bananas ripen from green (ugh) to yellow (uh) to traces of brown (yum) to full brown (oh-no) to black (yuk), but they are not quite right if they evolve into a weird mix of forget-me-not green, barely yellow, and specks of brown. You can keep your banana, thank you.

But I've been reading a lot of books lately that have confirmed my conviction to argue with my own data: Hans Rosling's Factfulness, Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now, and Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project, all worthwhile reads. I have always been skeptical about data, a disposition I regularly urge my students to take. I tell them to see not only both sides of an argument but multiple ones. Such thinking may reverse their opinions, strengthen some they already have, and maybe even create new ones. Then how could I not accept your banana?

Realizing my hypocrisy, I peeled the banana and took a bite. It was delightfully delicious, and I was decidedly wrong in my banana analytics. After devouring that banana in seconds, I realized the need to reinvent my entire banana hue spectrum. Of course, I won't go monochromatic in choosing bananas, but I'll have to add more data to my choosing, such as their feel and smell. What a world I've opened to myself!

Come on, you know you've been wrong about your data too. Can you think of an instance? Keep analyzing in all you do at work, school, home, and playground.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 8: Starting and Ending Positive

In the previous post of this WORDS ON THE LINE series on tone, I noted that the tone of a written message improves when following but with a positive thought, not a negative one. Of course, we would do well to  avoid the negative altogether.

So little can you do to offset starting a message with a negative tone. That's a sure way of having it disregarded by most of your readers most of the time, even when ending on a positive note. In fact, they'll likely not get to the positive part. Kicking off a message with "You wrote three glaring errors on your report" or "You made two blunders during the staff meeting" usually sets up a combative situation between writer and reader.  

Writing with a positive opening and a negative ending also has its troubles. Beginning with "I hope you're have a nice day" only to conclude with "I expect you to correct these problems immediately" will surely be seen a insincere or thoughtless at best and sarcastic or belligerent at worst. 

The best bet is to start and end on positive notes when you want the message to be read in a positive way. So the aim would be to open with "This is the way we would like you to do it" rather than "Don't do it that way," or to close with "I know you'll get this done on time and with quality" rather than "Don't be late and don't make mistakes." Tone matters as much a purpose.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 7: Watching Your "But"

We all know what's going on in the mind of insincere communicators who say, "I agree with you, but," or "You did a good job, but." They really don't agree with us, and they actually think we did a bad job. We especially see through such disingenuous expressions in writing, since we assume writers took the time to craft their point.

But they either don't always take the time to reflect on their readers' feelings, and even if they do, they might not have the same writing awareness as they do reading awareness. So here are three tips for watching your but if tone matters to you.

1. Explain your positives. Instead of writing "I agree with your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York, but it's too expensive," describe why you agree—or don't write that you agree. Let's see how both would situations would work.

If you agree, but with reservations, you might write:
I believe your proposal to move our office to New York makes sense for three reasons: 1) it will give us greater visibility in one of the most important financial centers in the world; 2) it will give us greater access to more prospective clients; and 3) it will expand our talent pool selection. For these reasons, we need to do a cost analysis of these potential gains against the moving and increased rental expenses.
If you simply disagree, you might write: 
Your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York is too expensive, as it will cost us $109,000 in moving expenses and an annual rent increase of $531,000.
2. Replace but with so. Most times, finding another word for but is a no-brainer. And I don't mean however, which is just a fancier but, implying the same meaningOne I commonly use is so. Examples:
Replace "Your report was on schedule, but I found two mistakes" with "Your report was on schedule, so we have time to fix two mistakes in it." 
Instead of  "Your presentation is credible, but your conclusion isn't focused," write "Most of your presentation is credible, so you'll want to revise your conclusion to better focus your audience.
3. Use but after negatives, not positives. Decide which of these two sentences has a better tone:

  • You handled that difficult client well, but you could have offered him another choice. 
  • You could have offered that difficult client another choice, but you handled him well.

If you think the second one is an improvement, as I do, then you'll want to end on a positive note by placing but after the negative, not the positive point. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 6: Knowing When to Send

It's all in the timing. Sometimes readers might get annoyed by a written message only because of when they receive it. Ill-timed emails and handwritten notes can escalate workplace tensions, so we would do well to avoid becoming the agent of tension tightening, fury fueling, or party-pooping.

Before sending a message, we should consider not only whether we should put something in writing but when we should. An email requesting help five minutes before the end of the business day might not be as thoughtful as at the top of the next business morning. A message counseling a staff member for making erring near a project deadline might work better when the pressure simmers upon project completion. Also, we might wait for the dust to settle in a misunderstanding between two associates before we fire off a note explaining our expectations for their future conduct. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 5: Knowing Whether to Send

One of the best lessons a business writer can learn is this: some things should not be put in writing. If you are reading this, you surely can think of a time when an email irritated you. Maybe the writer merely needed to give you instructions or a simple heads up, but the inappropriate tone derailed the business purpose. With this thought in mind, keep these three tips close in mind to guard against falling into a tone trap:

1. Do not send the message if you know you're upset. Use means other than writing to resolve a heated issue.

2. Remember annoyance, belligerence, condescension, and sarcasm never belong in work-related writingEven the most skilled writers run the risk of stoking the rising flames when sending an email in a tone-sensitive situation.

3. Take the high road. If you can't find a way of directly getting to the business point, then back off and do something else. Return to it later and, bingo, you'll figure it out.