Advanced Business Writing
Style and Sophistication

Tone for Purpose

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.

As people read your words, they immediately wonder, "What is this about? Is this a request? A response? Recommendation? Or is it just informational? What is the purpose of this writing?"

And they make subtle judgments about your tone, asking themselves, "Are the words and sentences appropriate for the purpose of this writer?" If the answer is Yes, then the reader approves of your tone.

But how do you adjust your style to achieve the appropriate tone?

The not-so-helpful answer is that you already do it intuitively, though seldom perfectly. The analytical answer is found in the Purpose Guidelines that follow.

Purpose Guidelines

It's seldom that your purpose in writing can be accurately described by a single word. Nevertheless, four reasonable examples are provided below. Achieving the right tone is not easy, but a good starting point is to adjust your style to match the purpose. Specifically, adjust your style to make your writing personal or impersonal:

Writing to decline? - Be impersonal.

Writing to inform? - Be mostly impersonal.

Writing to request? - Be mostly personal.

Writing to recommend? - Be personal.

To be impersonal:

(1) Use formal sentences.

This is to inform you that the proposal was delivered to the Director of Accounting.

(2) Use titles, not names.

WidgeKo's president attended the meeting.

(3) Avoid personal pronouns.

The presentation was informative.

(4) Avoid contractions.

We are disappointed that WidgeKo's president will not attend the next meeting.

To be personal:

(1) Use conversational sentences.

I handed your proposal to my boss.

(2) Use names, not titles.

Parker Mansfield attended the meeting.

(3) Use personal pronouns.

I learned a lot at your presentation.

(4) Use contractions.

We're disappointed that Parker won't attend the next meeting.

Try an example and then score yourself to see how well you did.

Here is the scenario: Your employer, JilinTech, has decided not to invest in the company FujianApps. You have been asked to write the letter with the bad news.

First you write a letter you would like to send to an executive at FujianApps, someone you respect and enjoy spending time with:

We're very interested in your company because it seemed there was a good match in industry, development stage, and business model. As part of our due diligence, we assessed your innovative technology and reviewed your financial projections. We also talked a lot with your founders, other investors, and the early customers we could find.

We at JilinTech prefer to invest in companies that have already identified paid and scalable marketing channels. And, we only invest in a company if it has a clear vision for how it plans to grow sales by a factor of a hundred.

Unfortunately, we had to conclude that your marketing efforts to date have not established a paid and scalable marketing channel and your founders don't have a clear vision for exponential growth. Therefore, I'm sorry to say we won't be investing in your company at this time.

But then you remember you are writing to decline something (an opportunity to invest). Therefore, it would be best if you write with an impersonal style. Here is your final edit:

JilinTech considered investing in FujianApps because it appeared there might be a good match in industry, development stage, and business model. Due diligence included an assessment of technology innovations and financial projections. It also included detailed discussions with company founders, other investors, and current customers.

JilinTech invests in companies that have identified paid and scalable marketing channels. An essential investment criterion is that the founders can articulate a clear vision for how to grow sales by two orders of magnitude.

The conclusions reached were that there is no suitable marketing channel identified and there is no clear vision for exponential growth. Therefore, JilinTech will be declining to invest in FujianApps at this time.

That "feels" a lot less personal, right? Just to be sure you got it right, you assemble a checklist to tally how well you adjusted style to purpose:

Be Impersonal
 ✓  Use formal sentences.
 ~  Use titles, not names.
 ✓  Avoid personal pronouns.
 ✓  Avoid contractions.

Lesson: Tone for Purpose
Module: Style and Sophistication
Course: Advanced Business Writing