Rick Holton's Words on Words: Nameplate

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For writers in your organization who have analyzed their purpose and audience, an important next step is achieving the right tone.


Set the Right Tone

Tone expresses your attitude toward the subject and the audience.  A local company recently sent a memo to employees that amounted to this:  "Because morale is low, we will be instituting an employee awards program."  What attitude does this express toward employees?  It might have been more effective to start:  "Because you have been working hard under pressure..."


Here are four tips on tone that might be useful to people in your organization.


Choose the Right Word

By now, most of us know that Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter-it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."  Much of tone-setting is word choice.


Choosing the right word may sound difficult, but it depends on the audience and your message.  Often tone can be completely altered by changing only a few words, as in the incentives memo above.  The company never would have written what they did had they thought a little more carefully about their audience and how they might react.


Establish the Right Level of Formality

Achieving the right level of formality is, again, mostly a matter of word choice. Do you start your memo "Dear Bob," for instance, or "Dear Mr. Smith?"


Have you been appropriately friendly or stern?  If you are writing to turn someone down, for example, and there is no chance that you will change your mind, your tone must make the message unmistakable, without, however, being abrupt or rude. 


Level of formality is also affected by punctuation (parentheses, for example, tend to be informal), use of contractions, sentence length and complimentary close  ("Very truly yours," for example, is much more formal than "Best wishes").

Sound Confident
You are a professional, and you should sound that way.  Avoid expressions like "I believe..." and "I can assure you that..."  They bespeak lack of confidence and, because they are unnecessary, distance the reader.

Be Positive

Avoid negative expressions, and avoid pointing out bad things you are not obligated to mention.  Refer, for instance, to "challenges" rather than "problems."  Don't talk about what you can't do-talk about what you can do.


Another feature of being positive is not accepting someone else's terms.  If someone criticizes your company, for example, for emitting "dense clouds of noxious smoke" from one of your manufacturing facilities, don't use their terms in your response.  Point out instead that you are in the final stages of installing "clean-air equipment."

All the best,