How to Hone the Right Tone in Business Writing

by Mary Cullen on Tue, Jul 16, 2013

Where is the line between personality and professionalism in business writing tone? How muchbusiness writing tone image resized 600 of our personality should shine through our documents?

I hear this question about tone in business writing tone often in business writing courses. Many business people mistakenly hide behind templates or use corporate-speak language in an attempt to fit in and "sound professional. "Transparency" is a commonly bantered-about term, but not easily defined. We can easily sound bossy or timid when we don't mean to.

Whether we like it or not, we do project an image about our competency, ease, confidence, personality, and skill in every document and message we write at work. Our business writing is a fantastic medium to convey our skills and professionalism and warmth, so we should embrace this and project the right tone. (Or, cultivate this if it needs work.)

#1 Define the business writing tone you want to convey about yourself.

Varying positions and industries and personalities do require unique tones. Depending on your position and field, it might be:

  • Accessible and smart
  • Supportive and kind
  • Engaged and insightful
  • In charge and the voice of authority
  • Artistic and trendy
  • Authoritarian
  • Snarky but funny and smart (Caution with this. Many bloggers and some consultants adopt this and it works for only a rare few.)

I strive for my business writing tone to be knowledgeable and helpful. 

Let's look at two extremes to find balance: unprofessional too much information (the dreaded TMI) tone contrasted with timid and stilted tone.

Here is an actual too much information example, sent via Instant Message as part of an internal project team discussion, that illustrates a lack of professionalism. (This was sent by a female senior marketing manager to her team, comprised of men and women, in the US and abroad, some of whom she knew well and some she had never met):

"Be back in a bit to chat away and answer IMs! I am off to work out my booty at break. Going back to Florida in 20 days! WOOT"

This fails - badly - because it was irrelevant to any real work discussion and unprofessional.

"Booty" isn't an appropriate topic to chat up with business colleagues, unless they are also your very close friends, and even then shouldn't be put in writing. Everything you write at work belongs to your employer and is discoverable in any legal review. I'm guessing no one wants a review of his or her booty workouts as part of a professional evaluation.

This example is extremely off the mark because it also was sent to an international audience. Wider audience matters. And, wider audiences have varying perceptions. This writer works in a very casual satellite office located in Los Angeles, California, where communication norms are more relaxed than other areas. It's possible (but unlikely) that this extremely relaxed banter is acceptable within her local, small work group, but we need to keep focus on our wider audience as well. An older businessman from Asia (her boss) sent this example to me because he viewed it as extremely unprofessional. As a condition to keep her job, she was required to work with me to develop an authentic, but professional, voice in all her communication.

Conversely, here is an example that is too stiff and timid, sent via email from the head of a work area to colleagues who lead other work areas.

While I would love for the needs of all three departments to be factored in, however, I can also appreciate that your respective organizations have its own project list where you may or may not be able to allocate resources to work on this project. If that were the case, then we will take another approach towards selecting a solution. 

Please let me know your thoughts on this and if you are conceptually in agreement, then the name(s) of people in your respective group who would service as the functional lead on the project. I can then reach out to them to organize a kick-off meeting. If you feel that you will be unable to allocate resources to this project this year, then I would understand and would appreciate you letting me know about that too.

This fails - less badly - because the writer's request is so indirect and tentative that it lacks authority. This doesn't convey the tone of someone competently in charge of leading a business unit with clear vision and confidence.

#2 How then, can we be authentic and transparent, but not bleed all over our audience or be too timid? How do we hit the right balance?

Easy: Always envision your audience. Provide the information that suits your audience's needs. In the first example, by simply considering her wider audience before sending this message, the writer would have known immediately that her international boss would not want to hear about a booty workout. In the second instance, the writer would realize colleagues need competent recommendations, not timid requests.

Because we first have defined the tone in business writing that is right for our honest personality and position, we will naturally find the balance by matching this to audience. This works every time.

Business communication is not about broadcasting or false personas. It's about connection. I do not advocate self-censorship of personality, beliefs, and way of being, but I do believe we must frame our message so our readers respect it.

Too often in business, we forget it's really a human to human connection occurring. It is good business to bring our authentic selves to a mutual meeting place with our audience so we hear each other, so sales are made, skills gained, businesses grow and perspectives widen.

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Topics: Business Writing Skills, Business Writing Style

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A in English from the University of Rhode Island, a M.A in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

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