Business Writing Essentials

Tact and Tone

It's bad when you offend a reader—really bad if the situation is important to your boss. You must be tactful. You must control your writing style. You must strive to assemble your words so the reader will naturally conclude that your tone is acceptable.

Remember, you're writing for a colleague, not a professor. Teachers graded you on correctness; people at work will also judge you on appropriateness. And their disapprovals don't disappear at the end of a semester. Worse yet, they can show up in a performance review, a record that never goes away.

Style versus Tone

When speaking face-to-face, you communicate in two ways: language (what you say) and tone (how you say it).

When you communicate using only typed words, you are at a disadvantage regarding tone. You must adjust the style of your language to the reality of the written word:

Style is how you write.
Tone is what they hear.

A key issue is rank. Your reader opens your document and immediately wonders: Who is this from? Is this person a superior of mine? About the same level as me? Subordinate? What is their relative position of power?

Your reader then makes subtle judgments about your tone: Are the words and sentences appropriate for the position of this writer? If the answer is Yes, then the reader approves of your tone.

Situation 1A: You are subordinate in position.

Try a writing style that is indirect.

Use complex sentences.

Before investing any more time and money analyzing all the options, it should be verified that the customer remains committed to the project.

Avoid imperatives.

It would be best if questions were received before Friday.

Hide accountability.

After discussions about schedules, the meeting was postponed.

Use hedging words.

almost, a little, maybe, perhaps, possibly, it seems, some might conclude

To control your writing this way, you have to consciously step away from your personal writing style preferences. It's no longer about you: it's for the reader and the situation. You may also notice that here, appropriateness trumps clarity.

Situation 1B: You are superior in position.

Try a writing style that is direct.

Use simple sentences.

We need to know if our customer is still committed to the project.

Use imperatives.

Send me your questions by Friday.

Show accountability.

Bob decided to postpone the meeting.

Avoid hedging words.

But what about really sticky situations? What tactful words can help when things could become embarrassing? There are things you can try.

Situation 2: Your boss wrote something that you know is wrong.

Try a writing style that is—wait, STOP!

Try this instead: Don't respond in writing. Talk in person, discreetly.

"That's interesting what you wrote. I was thinking the same thing. But I recently learned about another way of looking at it."

Situation 3: A coworker presents an idea that you know is seriously flawed.

Try this: Don't discourage him, but do redirect him.

That's an interesting way to look at it. But I wonder if X would make it difficult.

Interesting—that sounds like something that would be even better for our Y department, because of Z.

Situation 4: A coworker expects you to do something unpleasant and not part of your job.

Try this: Acknowledge the expectation, and explain why you can't meet it.

I appreciate your assigning me X, but I have to say I'm not comfortable with Y. I could help gather Z, but I can't participate any further than that. Sorry.

Situation 5: A coworker requests a critique of his awful writing.

Try this: Compliment the effort. If you do want to help him, suggest how you would improve it if it had been your own writing.

It was thorough, and I understood what you were saying. When I prepare reports like that, I often find myself referring to The Gregg Reference Manual for guidance on making it absolutely clear.

Let's be honest, this is very subjective stuff. And it's icky, touchy-feely stuff. But consider this claim: style counts as much as content—in the mind and feelings of the reader. Judging the situation accurately might be what separates you from coworkers who don't even try.

Lesson: Tact and Tone
Module: Style
Course: Business Writing Essentials