Writing Skills

Positive Tone: It’s How You Say It

positive tone

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:

  1. Avoid using negative trigger words such as:
argue

bad

but

careless

complain

dangerous

debt

defect

delay

difficult

doubt

effort

error

fail

fault

however

liability

mistake

marked

must

not

never

obvious

problem

reject

sadly

should

stop

terrible

unfortunately

waste

wrong

  1. Use these positive words instead:
benefit

bonus

bright

clear

easy

effective

energy

ensure

fast

focused

now

please

powerful

save

simple

strong

  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. Use antonyms to remove the word “not.” For example:
Instead of

He did not accept help.

The office will not be open.

They were not present.

Use

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.

Crafting a Helpful Out of Office Message

email auto-responder

by Jody Bruner

Holiday season is about to begin, and we will all soon be enjoying some vacation time. But with the exception of statutory holidays, business carries on, and your business associates need to know if and when you’re available. In our Email Essentials workshop, we teach you how to use your out of office notification effectively to communicate your absence any time you’re away. This helps you manage expectations and helps your clients and colleagues avoid the frustration of expecting a quick response while you’re away. If your autoresponder is clear, complete, and gives your readers the information they need, they will be grateful.

What information should you include in your out of office email? This depends on your role in the company and the industry you’re in. Consider these ideas when you think about what your network needs to know:

  • The dates of your absence, and especially the date of your return. I always appreciate it if the writer spells out the dates (I’ll return Tuesday, January 3rd instead of 01/03/17). Be precise—avoid saying you’ll be gone for two weeks or returning next Monday. Instead, say you’ll return on January 3rd.
  • Who to contact for an urgent matter. An out of office message might offer contact information for someone who can handle an emergency in your absence. This gives a sender with an urgent issue the ability to move forward. If you work in a large company and have a few staff members on your team handling different areas, include a list of relevant names, email addresses and phone numbers.
  • If you’ll be checking your inbox. Let people know if and how frequently you’ll be checking email (once a week, once a day, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, etc.) and when they can expect a response to urgent requests. Of course, this means you have to follow through as promised.
  • The reason for your absence. This isn’t always necessary, but it might be a good idea to let people know if you’re on vacation or on a business trip. If you’re at a conference or taking a course to improve yourself by building skills or knowledge, explaining this in your out of office message only builds your credibility.
  • Make sure your message is complete, concise and correct. Use white space and bullets if needed. I always appreciate being able to quickly scan a message to find the information I’m looking for.

Here are some examples:

Example 1

Vacation Alert!

I will be away until Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017.

I’ll be checking email occasionally and will have limited ability to respond. If this is an urgent matter, please contact Jane Smith at jane.smith@company.com (222 333-4445)

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Sandra Johnson

Example 2

Thanks for your note.

I’m away at a plain language conference from Monday, November 28th to Friday, December 2nd. I will respond to your email when I’m back on Monday, December 5th.

If you’d like to speak to someone right away, please contact Francine Melody at 222 333-4444.

While we’re on the topic of vacation alerts, our office is gearing up to slow down for the holidays. Wavelength offices will be closing on Tuesday, December 27th and opening again on Tuesday, January 3rd.

Have a great holiday season and a happy New Year!

5 Things to Know About Your Non-Technical Audience

presentation to non-technical audience

by Jody Bruner

Technical writers often find themselves needing to make important recommendations to clients or business readers who have little or no technical knowledge. Being able to get through to a non-technical audience is crucial because you need them to quickly make the right decisions for the right reasons. Missing the mark can derail important projects, hinder progress and erode your credibility.

The secret to communicating with your non-technical audience is having a deep understanding of their needs and prior knowledge, and using this knowledge to plan your message strategically. Knowing your audience helps you satisfy their needs without compromising the integrity of your message.

The following questions come from our Writing Technical Reports workshop’s Situational Analysis. It’s a tool for analyzing your purpose, audience and context as you create your message.

  1. What does your audience know about the topic?
    Assume they know much less than you do, even if they are technical. As the person preparing the recommendation, you have the advantage of having immersed yourself in the topic, so you know more than anybody. We recommend assuming your audience is ignorant, but not stupid. There’s a big difference in this distinction! By assuming ignorance, you give your audience the information they need without dumbing it down or being disrespectful.
  2. How much detail do they want?
    As the writer, you likely find your topic interesting and have invested a lot of time and energy in it. It’s human nature to want to share and take your audience through your thought process. But they are not as interested as you are, so don’t burden them with too much detail, especially up front. The audience is most interested in the results of your analysis, so put your findings up front. Tell them what you want from them, how they will benefit and, if relevant, what it will cost. Then, in the body of your talk or report, support your recommendation and its benefits with the necessary detail.
  3. What are their strategic goals?
    Consider how your recommendation will further your audience’s agenda. Are they looking to improve productivity? Increase revenue? Solve a specific problem? Have you identified an opportunity? Link your recommendation explicitly to your audience’s strategic goals.
  4. What are their fears and frustrations?
    Your decision makers want to look good to the people they report to—shareholders, senior executives, or clients. They want to make good decisions as quickly and painlessly as possible. A clearly presented proposal gives your audience the confidence they need to know they’re making the right decision.
  5. What objections do you anticipate?
    As you build a comprehensive profile of your audience, you will see your message from their point of view. You’ll be able to anticipate and address their questions and concerns. This deep preparation gives you confidence in your message and gives your audience confidence in you.

Using these questions to profile your audience before you start writing your report or presentation is the best way to stay focused on what they need to hear as opposed to what you want to say.

If you or your team could benefit from learning more about this and other tools for communicating to non-technical audiences, please contact us to learn more.

10 Tips for New Grads: How to Succeed at Your First Job

communicating first job

by Jody Bruner

Last post we discussed how high impact writing can help land your dream job. Here, we are going to focus in on newly graduated millennials. While an astonishing 87% of new graduates see themselves as prepared to enter the workforce with the skills they gained from their education, hiring managers don’t agree.

A recently released study from PayScale (an on-demand compensation data and software company) and Future Workplace (an executive development firm) shows that 44% of managers feel writing proficiency is the hard skill most lacking among college graduates, and 39% feel presentation skills is the second most lacking.

Communicating on the job is different from the communicating you did at school. You’re not writing or speaking to show your understanding or that you can argue a position in the same way you did while you were in school. Still, once you are working, you’ll find your day is full of communicating: writing emails, having conversations and thinking critically to move projects forward. Mastering these skills is what we teach.

Here’s some advice to pass on to any new grads you know.

Writing tips 

  1. Many boomers feel your writing skills have been destroyed by text and instant messaging. That’s not true, of course, but it’s important to match your writing style to your reader. Use IM style when you’re writing to a peer, but standard English when writing to your boss or a client. Be smart about it.
  2. Not sure what standard English is? For starters, be certain your grammar is correct. If you’re doubtful about a sentence’s grammaticality, turn it into two simple sentences. It’s always better to be simple and grammatical than complex and ungrammatical. Curious about grammar? Learn one rule each month. There aren’t that many, and you’ll probably learn them all in one year.
  3. Get to the point when crafting your message. Avoid rambling and try not to bury your key message. Look at your message from your reader’s point of view and ask yourself what information would be most interesting and useful to them.
  4. Writing an email? Make your subject line descriptive so the reader will know what the message is about and what they need to do with it.
  5. Make your message look inviting. Use whitespace, headings and lists.

Presentation tips

  1. Video yourself to see your strengths and weaknesses. Do you speak in a monotone? Do you use fillers such as like, um, ah, you know? Do you have any distracting physical habits?
  2. Rehearse a lot! The better you know your message, the more confident you will be when delivering it.
  3. Remember you’re the presentation, not your PowerPoint presentation. Avoid a closed captioned deck. If your audience can read along, what the point of presenting?
  4. Involve your audience. Ask them questions and invite them to ask questions.
  5. Ensure your words, voice, tone and body language are in synch.

I’ll add the advice I always gave my own kids as they were growing up: always offer a firm handshake, smile, and make eye contact when you meet people.

What’s the best advice you either give your own kids or received from someone you respect?

High Impact Writing and Your Job Search

high impact writing job search

by Alan De Back

Over many years as a career coach, I’ve discovered that the most qualified person does not always land the job. You may have great credentials, but your lack of high impact writing skills could eliminate you from consideration.

How you present yourself in writing is critical to making the first cut. Whether writing a resume or editing your LinkedIn profile, a high impact writing style sends a message of energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism.

What are the most important elements of a high impact writing style?

  • Use active voice. Active voice conveys energy and gives you the opportunity to “own” your accomplishments. You will also express yourself more clearly and concisely. Here is the difference:

I presented important project results to senior management.

vs.

Important project results were presented to senior management.

  • Use action verbs. “Responsible for” is tired wording that doesn’t convey the action you took to achieve your accomplishment. Action verbs convey actions and outcomes.
  • Use the simple “STAR” formula (Situation/Task/Action/Results) to outline your accomplishments. Using active voice, you will clearly provide an overview of your achievements without fluff. Here is an example:
    • Situation: Senior management was unaware of the results of our very important project to reduce administrative costs by 10%.
    • Task: My supervisor assigned me to develop a presentation to make management aware of our results, which reduced costs by 25%.
    • Action: I developed a presentation that I delivered at the monthly senior management planning meeting.
    • Results: Our CEO gave me written feedback that my message was delivered clearly and significantly impacted the budget meeting that followed.

Using the STAR format, your final overview of this accomplishment might look like this in your LinkedIn profile:

I recently designed and delivered a very successful presentation to my company’s CEO. The situation was that senior management in our company were unaware of a project my team was implementing to reduce administrative costs by 10%. My boss asked me to develop a presentation outlining how we actually reduced those costs by 25%. I developed a presentation that I delivered at the monthly management planning meeting. My CEO gave me written feedback that my very clear message had a significant impact on the budget planning meeting that followed.

In short, a high impact writing style will help you present yourself in a positive format that will help you land the job!

How to Stay Limber While You Write

Business woman do stretch with laptop in front isolated over white background.by Lesley Nevills

If you find your muscles are tight and sore when you spend hours sitting and writing, try these tips for staying limber and releasing unwanted tension. You’ll be more creative and have an easier time writing when you can relax.

1. Breathe deeply

When we are tense and stressed we often hold our breath or breathe very shallowly. Remember to periodically take a slow deep breath and exhale fully. If I could only share one piece of advice learned from years of teaching and doing yoga, it would be to practice deep breathing.

2. Stand up and move 

Remember to move around at least once every hour. Even if you stand and roll your shoulders a few times, you will help release stress and any built up tension. You can set a reminder on your phone or computer to help you get into the habit.

3. Learn to recognize where you hold your stress

Take a moment to notice any part of your body that may be tense right now. Check your jaw, feet, neck, eyes, forehead, shoulders, back, hips, legs and stomach. Move that part slowly and notice what you feel. Then just let it relax and let that tension go. Keep it relaxed while taking several deep breaths in and out, slowly.

4. Do simple seated stretches

A quick and easy stretch can be very effective to ease muscle tension periodically. You can do a number of great stretches without leaving your desk. You will feel energized and invigorated so you can continue writing.

5. Let your mouth relax

We don’t realize how much tension we hold in our jaw and neck until we consciously relax this area. By softening your mouth, tongue and jaw, you can relieve unconscious tension. Part your lips slightly, swallow and relax your tongue.

6. Release shoulder tension

Here is a technique to try: Take a deep breath in and while you do raise your shoulders up towards your ears. As you exhale rapidly, drop your shoulders down. If you want even more release, make some noise while you do this exercise. Sigh, humph or say ah!

Do you know any other strategies? Please share if you do.

How to Close Your Email Messages

by Jody Bruner

Back in the day of the letter, we were much more formal in our closings. Typically we signed off with Yours truly in formal situations, and Sincerely yours or even Cordially in less formal situations. In business today, while emails sometimes serve the same purpose as a letter, they are less formal and the traditional closes feel too dated and formal.

The close does more than mark the end of your message. It also helps reinforce your purpose in writing and defines the personality of your message—is it a thank you or an apology? Is it casual or formal? Is it personal or business?

You may be tempted to save time by making your complimentary close part of your signature block, but it won’t always match your message and can make you sound insincere. Present a more professional image by thoughtfully matching your close to the message you are writing.

Here are some popular options—the good, the bad and the ugly. Choose the close that suits your situation and your personal style:

Best: Totally safe to use.

Best wishes, Best regards: More formal, but still acceptable.

Regards: A bit bland, but totally acceptable.

Sincerely: Way too formal for an email. Maybe it would work for a cover email for a job application.

Take care: A bit bland but acceptable.

Thanks (or Many thanks): This is also common, and acceptable. Make sure you are actually thanking your reader for something specific.

Thanks in advance: Presumptuous. Avoid this if it is a command masquerading as premature gratitude.

Talk soon: Again, use it if you are going to be talking soon.

Warm regards: Formal and friendly at the same time.

Warmly: Nice. It’s great for emails to someone you’re close to but aren’t in regular touch with.

Your initial: This is very informal. Only use it with people who know you very well.

Your name: This feels cold and abrupt. The initial is warmer, even without the complimentary close.

Do you have a favourite complimentary close that’s not on this list? Please share!