Imagine you’ve sent this to a colleague: ‘Feel like a drink after work?’
And you get this reply: ‘Dear Mike, thank you for your message of 2.34 pm today suggesting that we should meet for drinks after work this afternoon. I regret that I will be unavailable on this occasion, as Mary and I will be attending a parent-teacher meeting at the school at 5.30 pm. Could I suggest tomorrow? I look forward to hearing from you. Jim.’
Weird, eh? The message is clear; the language is reasonably plain; but the tone is too formal for the relationship.
What would the opposite weirdness be? It would be to send a customer complaint and get this reply:
‘Hi Mike. Got your message about how our Acme food blender blew up in your face. Wow, that must have been a shock! Lucky you weren’t hurt. Were your clothes a mess? Awfully sorry about that. What say we replace it for you?’
The quick note to a friend is in the style of a business letter, and the business letter is in the style of a quick note to a friend. They both sound absurd.
Of course we’ve exaggerated these examples for comic effect. But the serious point is that everything we write – yes, everything, right down to answering an invitation to drinks – has a certain tone. That tone reflects what sort of communication it is and what sort of relationship we want. It’s important to get it right.
It’s easy to forget about tone because for most types of writing we’re used to following unwritten rules and house styles. The note to the friend: relaxed and informal. The reply to a complaint: attentive and apologetic. The advice brief to a boss: competent but not domineering (you say ‘we recommend …’ not ‘you need to …’).
But even if choosing your tone is mostly routine, it’s still important to be aware of what you’re doing.
Why? Firstly, because sometimes you may need to break a habit. Most of us who write at work probably spend most of our time on a fairly narrow range of documents with an established house style. If we treat that style as our default, and unconsciously use it in other places where it strikes the wrong note, we may sound boring, foolish or rude.
Then there are the tricky cases. What if there’s no relationship yet? What sort of relationship do you want? What if you’re not really sure who you’re talking to and how they’ll take it?
The classic case of that is the job application. How do you want to pitch yourself? Keen, but not desperate. Confident, but not arrogant. A creative, but also a team player. You’re taking a punt on what will appeal to the recruiter you have in your mind’s eye.
But ‘not really sure who I’m talking to’ also applies to a lot of public-facing writing that government and business push out to an imagined general-interest reader. Like the spiel on the home page of your website, for example. That’s where it’s important to think more closely about who’s actually going to read this, what they want, and what sort of relationship you want to establish. You adapt your tone to that.
How do you create the tone you want? That’s a topic for another day. But to summarise: if there’s anything wrong with the tone of your writing, it’s probably that it’s more formal than is really necessary. If that’s a house style that you’re used to, you may not notice; but readers outside your circle may find it boring or off-putting.
A quick way to sound less formal is to use plain language (there’s good advice in the new Australian Government Style Manual). That doesn’t mean being too casual or familiar or dumbing down your content. It just helps to establish a friendly, cooperative, businesslike relationship with your reader, as you would like with anyone you do business with.