Control your tone to avoid negative attention from readers

tone-deaf flyerWhen you can’t perceive the variation in pitch between different musical notes, you’re considered tone deaf. That’s how the  Napa Valley Register labeled the four writers of the flyer at right in  9/11 memorial flyer offensive and tone-deaf. So you can also be tagged as tone deaf if you can’t perceive the variation in attitudes conveyed through different language choices. The writers’ tone was described as adolescent, tasteless, and contrary. They got readers’ attention. But, as a professional, negative attention is worse than no attention at all.

Tone is explained in Chapter 15 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix tone problems in workplace documents. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email from a financial services company. It was adapted by me based on one I received as a customer of TIAA-CREF.

  • Writer: CEO of a financial services company
  • Readers: customers of the company
  • Bottom Line Message: investing with the company is still wise even in the midst of a financial downturn

Here’s a revised version of that email message, with more effective tone.

Video Tutorial

The financial services email and some other examples are included in this <14-minute video about tone in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with tone in workplace documents. Just enter “tone” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, see the following articles.

Campbell, K.S. (2012). Just-in-case and just-in-time use of a video lecture-tutorial to teach students to manage tone in professional writing. Journal of Organizational Behavior Education, 5, pp. 135-144.

Campbell, K.S., Riley, K., & Parker, F. (1990). You-perspective: Insights from speech act theory. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 20(2), pp. 189-199.

Campbell, K.S. (1990).Explanations in negative messages: More insights from speech act theory. Journal of Business Communication, 27(4), pp. 357-376.

Riley, K. (1988). Speech act theory and indirectness in letter-writing style. Technical Writing Teacher, 15, pp. 1-29.

Riley, K. & Parker, F. (1988). Tone as a function of presupposition in technical and business writing. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 18(4), pp. 325-343.

Thayer, A., Evans, M. B., McBride, A. A., Queen, M., & Spyridakis, J. H. (2010). I, pronoun: A study of formality in online content. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 40(4), pp. 447-458.

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