Written communication is guided by similar rules of etiquette and performance. However, writing usually occurs in a social vacuum. It is not subject to the same immediate feedback as verbal communication, which leaves a lot of room for error. When crafting your message, you need to consider more than the established etiquette (a business letter versus a personal letter), you need to consider your tone. You need to select a tone that will be effective with your intended audience. Here are three basic tones to consider.
Strong Authorial Voice
A strong authorial voice is necessary whenever you are attempting to persuade your audience. Authority is developed through credibility, how well you know your topic and how much experience you have. You cannot fake your way to authority with fancy words. On the other hand, you can inadvertently dilute your authority with a weak authorial voice.
A weak authorial voice is over conciliatory and self-reflective. For example, when you start a statement with, “In my opinion, I believe that” you are already anticipating the possible objections. Although, many people do this in an attempt to be inclusive (i.e. “Here is my opinion, but you may have another one.”), it distracts from the actual opinion the writer is about to deliver.
Phrases like these are also unnecessary. First of all, since you are the writer, the reader already knows it is your opinion. Furthermore, if you are expressing an opinion, the reader already knows that is what you believe. Essentially, you are delaying your point, while giving the reader unnecessary commentary. For this reason, strong authorial voice usually avoids first person and second person pronouns like “I” and “you.”
In contrast, you also want to avoid the inflated authorial voice. Statements like “It is a proven fact that,” or “it is obvious that” attempts to impose an opinion on the reader. Your reader will react negatively to overbearing language. Instead, present your facts and let the reader follow those facts to a logical conclusion. If your facts are convincing enough, they will not need heavy handed statements. If your facts are not strong enough, no amount of verbal bludgeoning will persuade your reader to see things your way.
A collaborative voice is different from a conciliatory voice. Conciliatory language attempts to placate or pacify the audience, whereas the collaborative voice is inclusive. Collaborative language is dominated by the “we” perspective; however, it does not overgeneralize behavior or opinions. When using the collaborative voice, the writer approaches a topic as a member of a community. With the collaborative voice, diversity of experience is valued and represented in an equitable manner.
Collaborative voice is an excellent tone for teambuilding that focuses on common objectives. However, avoid using collaborative language to “deflect personal focus." Do not say “we” did or need to do something when you are the only individual involved. Your reader will ask the embarrassing question, “Who exactly is this ‘we’ you are referring to?” The Queen of England may refer to herself as “we” but you should not.
Directive voice is used whenever there is a call to action. Directive voice uses the pronoun “you” and your” and focuses on the benefits for the reader. When using a directive tone the most important question is how: How does this benefit the reader? Marketing experts call this the WIFM or “What’s in it for me?” If you are creating a call to action, you need to create a clear image of what the reader will experience if he or she follows through with that action.
A directive tone does not simply tell a reader what to do, but why it should be done. Although the “how,” creates a clear connection between the benefits and the reader, the “why” creates a strong connection between the action and the benefits.
Effective Word Choice
Tone is about more than just pronoun choice. Tone is also impacted by word choice. Word choice is such a powerful tool that many people have built entire careers on testing the effectiveness of language for advertisers and speech writers. Dr. Frank Lutz (the speech writer responsible for the Republican “Contract with America”) is one such individual. In his book, Words the Work, he points out how some words are more effective than others. In labor contract negotiations, words like security and fairness where more effective than words like peace of mind and compassion. These are very subtle differences by they can have a very big impact on the reader.
Your message is subject to the biases and assumptions of your audience. That is why you need to have a clear understanding of your audience and write specifically for that audience. Selecting the appropriate tone and making the most effective word choices takes practice. Just like verbal communication, you learn by doing.