Monday, July 09, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 3: Understanding the Influences on Tone

With a definition of tone and an understanding of the risks of a bad tone, we should look at the many factors affecting it. I'll mention five of them here, and I'm sure you'll come up with some of your own after reading this post.

1. The message you are sending. Let's face it: some news is bad no matter how you spin it. You fire someone, or you tell a good employee that she did not get that coveted promotion, or you establish a company-wide pay freeze, or you announce the death of a beloved employee. A little bit of simpatico would not hurt in these situations. Expressions such as "We're sorry that ..." or "Unfortunately" may seem hollow, but they're better than nothing. The best approach is an entire paragraph connecting yourself to your readers, showing that you understand the affect your announcement has on them.

2. The writer's attitude. Sometimes you may feel a situation is urgent, so you express the message accordingly. But your readers may not see the situation with the same level of urgency. They're too busy dealing with their own concerns to pay any attention to yours. If you are sufficiently sensitive to see these situations, you'll write in kind. 

3. The reader's attitude. Sometimes readers see situations differently from you. They might not want to donate to your favorite charity because it doesn't align with their values or because they ardently give to their own causes, which your organization may not directly support. Perhaps they don't prize your call to action about a safety best practice because they don't get how it will keep them out of harm's way. Or maybe they don't buy into something you're suggesting simply because you are the one suggesting it. They don't know you well enough, or they don't value your position, or they don't like you. It's possible. Maybe in such cases you'll need to invoke a higher authority with openers like, "On behalf of the  CEO," if you can get away with it. 

4. Your personal culture. Think about what matters most to you. Wisdom means a lot to me; I buy into people I consider wise. Of course, I don't do so blindly, but their opinions matter to me. Yet many people I write to believe honesty supersedes all else, so I will not impress them with the latest review of literature or with a snippet from a New York Times op-ed piece. Try to remember that the next time you write someone about something that matters a lot to you but maybe not to them.


5. Your corporate culture. Regardless of our values, inclinations, and behaviors, we are beholden to the our organization. Even though mine is a one-person organization, I try to maintain a party line when I communicate on behalf of my business. Believe it or not, my business attitude does not always reflect my personal one. For an innocuous example, I don't like neckties, but I mostly wear them when meeting clients. You do the same, no doubt. Think about the differences in your own style and your organization's style. Then see how well you accommodate the style of the people who show you the money.

Since so much is at stake when we write in tone-sensitive situations, it makes sense for us to consider ways to check our tone in the next WORDS ON THE LINE post.