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.