Tone and Phrasing Fast Forward MBA in Business communication

Tone is another one of those commonsense points that is often overlooked. In seminars, one of the best exercises we do is to pass out a sample letter and ask for a show of hands: Would you read this, set it aside for later, or toss it? Tone errors are the second most common reason (after too much information with no visual cues) that managers and executives give for setting aside a document to read later.

Tone errors often reflect poor editing for grammar and failing to complete the post writing step. Tone errors often result from anger. If you write a letter when you are angry, don't mail it immediately. Put it into a desk drawer, let it sit overnight, and then review it in the morning. It's easier and more effective to take the time to review it than to have to apologize or to suffer the consequences of your poor judgment.

Tone Errors Include Negative Phrasing

Some letter writers will take a negative approach:

We understand your customers have been canceling contracts due to your inability to meet milling tolerances of ±0.001 microns. Building on a positive statement is usually much more effective:

Our new CNC machines are helping our customers meet strict milling tolerances of ±0.001 microns and increase market share.

Often, the wrong tone is a result of one or two words that convey the wrong impression. Other times, tone errors are more problematic because they reflect a writer's basic personality, which is hard to hide in your writing. Because it is difficult to take on the reader's perspective and to recognize the "wrong" tone in a letter that you have written, we strongly recommend using a post writing step that includes letting your letter sit overnight and then rereading it or, better yet, asking a colleague to read it before you send it out.

Other Phrasing Concerns

Some phrasing errors occur as a result of being immersed in a company's culture. These include the excessive use of jargon and acronyms, gender specific phrasing, trite phrases, and using the passive voice.

Jargon and Acronyms

How do you know you're using too much jargon and too many acronyms? One clue is writing that appears code like: ". . . the SLC group at EK is very concerned about JIT delivery and ROE for the L&D function of the CNC . . ." When the spell checker for your word processor highlights every third word, it's time to start editing.

Gender-Specific Language

Not only is gender-specific language typically inaccurate, it is often inappropriate and can even cause legal problems. For example, do you mean security men or security officers? Managers, men who . . . or individuals who . . . ? Senior vice presidents, women who . . . or senior vice presidents, executives who . . . ? If a specific group is composed of only one gender, it is appropriate to note it; however, it is probably not appropriate, at least in the United States, to suggest that gender precludes employment in certain positions.

Trite Phrases

Trite phrases such as "Have a nice day" do not belong in business letters.

Active and Passive Sentence Construction

Phrasing problems can also be related to active versus passive voice in sentence construction. In general, use concise, active voice. It is shorter, eliminates a perception of overly formal writing, and increases the effectiveness of your writing.

Carol Gelderman in her chapter, "Business Letters," provides an excellent illustration of the difference between active-versus-passive construction and verb tenses two concepts that are frequently confused. As elderman illustrates, it is easy to write both active and passive constructions in all verb tenses:

When you use active voice, the subject "does" the action of the verb:

  1. Smith writes the best letter. (active, present tense)
  2. Smith wrote the best letter. (active, past tense)
  3. Smith will write the best letter. (active, future tense)

When you use passive voice, the subject is "acted upon" by something else:

  1. The best letter is written by Smith. (passive, present tense)
  2. The best letter was written by Smith. (passive, past tense)
  3. The best letter will be written by Smith. (passive, future tense)

Using the active voice in your business letters will significantly shorten them and often make them more effective. The passive voice is only effective if you want to maintain a formal tone.


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