by Leigh Geraghty
When asked about their business writing challenges, many of our workshop participants say they have trouble with the tone of their message. Tone is how you describe the emotional quality of writing. It reflects the writer’s attitude towards the reader, and affects how the reader will respond. Writers tend to put a lot of effort into sounding competent and professional, but aren’t always sure how to create a positive tone.
Three choices for tone
When it comes to tone, you have three choices: positive, negative or neutral.
Positive tone: Positive tone is always your best choice. It’s not just about being nice—positive tone is clearer and helps us get things done because its phrasing is simpler and it uses fewer words. By phrasing messages positively, you encourage people to buy into your ideas and establish good relationships for the future. Positive tone is a credibility builder.
Negative tone: Negative tone tends to make the reader feel angry and defensive, and may damage your professional image. While sentences containing negative expressions might lead to compliance, they rarely result in happy cooperation. Negative tone can also makes your message difficult to understand and remember.
Neutral tone: Neutral tone is the absence of positive or negative language. Neutral tone has no feeling—just the facts. While this might seem innocent enough, neutral tone carries a risk of being interpreted negatively, depending on the mood of the reader. In fact, neutral tone can come across as cold, or even chilling.
In business writing, positive tone is always your best choice—even when the message is negative. Always write with a focus on trying to help the reader and build the relationship, even if you’re annoyed.
How to create a positive tone
Tone is conveyed through your choice of words and phrases, your viewpoint, and how you put words and phrases together. Here are some tips for writing in a positive tone:
- Avoid using negative trigger words such as:
- Use these positive words instead:
- Use the positive form of the sentence. Instead of “Don’t forget to book a meeting room,” deliver the message positively: “Remember to book a meeting room.”
- Rather than focusing on the problem, focus on the solution or action. For example, change “I’m sorry we cannot discuss a cap on selling prices because the key decision maker is not available until Monday,” to “We can discuss a cap on selling prices on Monday, when the key decision maker is available.”
- Avoid long explanations, and focus on the solution. Instead of “I will be out of town from February 13 until February 18, and will not be able to meet with you until after that,” simply say “I can meet with you after February 18.”
- Use antonyms to remove the word “not.” For example:
He did not accept help.
The office will not be open.
They were not present.
He declined help.
The office will be closed.
They were absent.
Tone is present in all written communication, whether it’s a choice or an accident. By choosing a positive tone, you will build and maintain positive relationships, project a professional image and more readily accomplish your goals.