Chapter 3: Style and Tone
- Explain how to select the right tone
- Explore 5 principles of plain language
- Highlight the importance of using inclusive language
Unlike some other kinds of writing such as poetry or fiction, business writing is not an opportunity for self-expression. Instead, it calls for a fairly conservative and unadorned style. Writing style, also known as voice or tone, is the manner in which a writer addresses the reader. It involves qualities of writing such as vocabulary and figures of speech, phrasing, rhythm, sentence structure, and paragraph length. Developing an appropriate business writing style will reflect well on you and increase your success in any career.
Formal versus Informal
There was a time when many business documents were written in the third person to give them the impression of objectivity. This formal style was often passive and wordy. Today when business writing is expected to be active, clear, and concise, the formal style is no longer appropriate. As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient writing styles have become the norm. Still, you will experience in your own writing efforts this “old school versus new school” writing debate over abbreviations, contractions, and the use of informal language in what was once considered a formal business context. Consider the following comparison of informal versus formal and bureaucratic styles.
|Attached is the latest delivery data represented in topographical forms pursuant to the directive ABC123 of the air transportation guide supplied by the Federal Aviation Administration in September of 2019.||Please note the attached delivery data for July 2019.||Here’s the delivery data for last month.|
While it is generally agreed that bureaucratic forms can obscure meaning, there is a debate on the use of formal versus informal styles in business communication. Formal styles often require more detail, adhere to rules of etiquette, and avoid shortcuts like contractions and folksy expressions. Informal styles reflect everyday speech patterns and may include contractions and colloquial expressions. Many managers prefer not to see contractions in a formal business context. Others will point out that a comma preceding the last item in a series (known as the “serial comma”) is the standard, not the exception. Some will make a general recommendation that you should always “keep it professional.” Here lies the heart of the debate: what is professional writing in a business context? If you answered “it depends,” you are correct.
Keep in mind that audiences have expectations and your job is to meet them. Some business audiences prefer a fairly formal tone. If you include contractions or use a style that is too casual, you may lose their interest and attention; you may also give them a negative impression of your level of expertise. If, however, you are writing for an audience that expects informal language, you may lose their interest and attention by writing too formally; your writing may also come across as arrogant or pompous. It is not that one style is better than the other, but simply that styles of writing vary across a range of options. Business writing may need to meet legal standards and include references, as we see in the bureaucratic example above, but that is generally not the norm for communications within an organization. The skilled business writer will know his or her audience and will adapt the message to best facilitate communication. Choosing the right style can make a significant impact on how your writing is received.
You may hear reference to a conversational tone in writing as one option in business communication. A conversational tone, as the name implies, resembles oral communication in style, tone, and word choice. It can be appropriate for some audiences and may serve you well in specific contexts, but it can easily come across as less than professional.
If you use expressions that imply a relationship or a special awareness of information such as “you know,” or “as we discussed,” without explaining the necessary background, your writing may be seen as overly familiar, intimate, or even secretive. Trust is the foundation for all communication interactions and a careless word or phrase can impair trust.
If you want to use humour, think carefully about how your audience will interpret it. Humour is a fragile form of communication that requires an awareness of irony, juxtaposition, or a shared sense of attitudes, beliefs, and values. Different people find humour in different situations, and what is funny to one person may be dull, or even hurtful, to someone else.
Jargon is a vocabulary that has been developed by people in a particular group, discipline, or industry, and it can be a useful shorthand as long as the audience knows its meaning. For example, when writing for bank customers, you could refer to “ATM transactions” and feel confident that your readers would know what you meant. It would be unnecessary and inappropriate to write “Automated Teller Machine transactions.” Similarly, if you were working in a hospital, you would probably use many medical terms in your interactions with other medical professionals. However, if you were a hospital employee writing to a patient, using medical jargon would be inappropriate, as it would not contribute to the patient’s understanding.
Finally, in a business context, remember that conversational style is not an excuse to use poor grammar, disrespectful or offensive slang or profanity. Communication serves as the bridge between minds and your written words will represent you in your absence. One strategy when trying to use a conversational tone is to ask yourself, “Would I say it in this way to their face?” A follow-up question to consider is, “Would I say it in this way in front of everyone?” Your professional use of language is one the hallmark skills in business, and the degree to which you master its use will reflect itself in your success. Take care, take time, and make sure what you write communicates a professional tone that positively represents you and your organization.
5 Principles of Plain Language
The 5 Principles of Plain Language will help you to write clear, professional business messages which will reflect positively on you as a writer and a representative of your organization.
Principle 1: Use active voice
To use active voice, make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.
Read these two sentences:
- Lady Gaga left New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005 to focus on her music career.
- Lady Gaga’s music career was started in 2005 when she left New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
In the first sentence, left is an action verb that is paired with the subject, Lady Gaga. If you ask yourself, “Who or what left?” the answer is Lady Gaga. Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence— New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and career—“left” anything.
Now, look at the second sentence. The action verb is “started.” If you ask yourself, “Who or what started something?” the answer, again, is Lady Gaga. But in this sentence, the writer placed career, not Lady Gaga, in the subject position. When the doer of the action is not the subject, the sentence is in the passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word “by” as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb to be.
Writing in the active voice: Writing in active voice is easy once you understand the difference between active and passive voice. Make sure you always define who or what did what.
Using the passive voice: While using the active voice is preferred, sometimes passive voice is the best option. For example, maybe you don’t know who’s responsible for an action or you don’t want to place the blame on someone. For example, you might say “a lamp was broken at our recent party” to avoid saying who broke the lamp.
Principle 2: Use common words instead of complex words
Sometimes, new communicators believe that large words feel more appropriate to a business environment. Also, the world is filled with wonderful, long words that are fun to use. Often, however, long words cause more confusion. Worse than that, they can exclude anyone who doesn’t understand that particular word. Maybe you’ve had the experience of reading an academic article or textbook chapter and having to read the same sentence three times over to try to figure out what it was trying to say. Then, when you asked your instructor, they explained it in a simple way. If you’ve ever thought, “Why didn’t they just say it simply from the beginning?” you can understand the power of plain language.
Again, the trick is to use words that are appropriate to the audience, the context and your purpose. As we’ve said, time is the biggest constraint, so simple words likely meet most audiences’ needs. In specialized environments, however, more complex words are required. For example, a lawyer has to use specific, technical language to precisely lay out a case. A doctor has to use medical language to convey a patient’s exact symptoms and diagnosis.
When you enter into a new workplace context, look at how your coworkers are writing to determine the level of formality the situation requires. You can also use one of the many free online tools such as Readability Formulas to determine the reading level of your writing. When you use these tools, you copy and paste some text into the tool and it will estimate the reading level.
|Bureaucratic Phrase||Standard English Alternatives|
|At the present time||Now, today|
|Concerning the matter of||Regarding, about|
|Despite the fact that||Although, while, even though|
|Due to the fact that||Because, since, as|
|Implement an investigation of||Find out, investigate|
|Inasmuch as||Because, since, as|
|It has been suggested||[name of person or organization] has suggested, said, or stated|
|It is believed that||[name of person or organization] believes, thinks, or says that|
|It is the opinion of the author||I believe, I think, in my opinion|
|Until such time as||Until, when|
|With the exception of||Except, apart from|
Figure 3.1 | Bureaucratic Phrases and Standard Alternatives
Principle 3: Use a positive tone whenever possible
Unless there is a specific reason not to, use positive language wherever you can. Positive language benefits your writing in two ways. First, it creates a positive tone, and your writing is more likely to be well-received. Second, it clarifies your meaning, as positive statements are more concise. Take a look at the following negatively worded sentences and then their positive counterparts, below.
|Negative: Your car will not be ready for collection until Friday.
Positive: Your car will be ready for collection on Friday.
|Negative: You did not complete the exam.
Positive: You will need to complete the exam.
|Negative: Your holiday time is not approved until your manager clears it.
Positive: Your holiday time will be approved when your manager clears it.
Writers don’t just create a positive tone on the sentence level. They can also create this tone by choosing what details to include. This is especially important if a situation is negative to you but not the audience. For example, imagine that you held a fundraiser that didn’t raise as much money as you hoped. This might really impact your budget and the future of some programs you run. But if you’re sending out an email with the goal of getting people to fill out a survey asking for ways to improve the fundraiser, none of this matters.
Read the following two examples, then ask yourself which version would make you more likely to fill out the survey:
Negative Details: Unfortunately, this year’s Gala Under the Stars only raised half of its expected profit. This means that we will need to cancel our Little Stars after-school program and lay off part-time staff. Obviously, this is devastating to our organization, so we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Please fill out this survey to help make the Gala Under the Stars better.
Positive Details: Help us make Gala Under the Stars even better next year. Fill out this five-minute survey and be entered into a draw for two movie tickets.
In the first example, the reader has to wade through negative details in order to get to the survey. They might not even read the email long enough to find out about the survey. In the second example, however, the benefit to the reader (free tickets) and what’s being asked of them (to fill out a survey) is listed first. Positive details don’t just lead to a positive tone, they also help you fulfill the purpose of the communication.
Principle 4: Write for your reader
When you write for your readers and speak to an audience, you have to consider who they are and what they need to know. When readers know that you are concerned with their needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message and will be more likely to take the action you are asking them to and focus on important details. Your message will mean more to your reader if they get the impression that it was written directly to them.
Principle 5: Keep words and sentences short (conciseness)
It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to your message. Improve cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and editing to eliminate unnecessary words.
1. Eliminating Repetitive Ideas
Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea twice in a single sentence is redundant.
2. Removing Repeated Words
As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word, but often you can actually remove repeated words.
|Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.
Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.
3. Rewording to Eliminate Unnecessary Words
If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed.
|Original: Gagandeep has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Revision: Gagandeep makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
|Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.
Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.
4. Avoid Expletive Pronouns
Many people create needlessly wordy sentences using expletive pronouns, which often take the form of “There is …” or “There are ….” Pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, they, this, that, who, etc.) are words that we use to replace nouns (i.e., people, places, things), and there are many types of pronouns (e.g., personal, relative, demonstrative, etc.). However, expletive pronouns are different from other pronouns because unlike most pronouns, they do not stand for a person, thing, or place; they are called expletives because they have no “value.” Sometimes you will see expletive pronouns at the beginning of a sentence, sometimes at the end.
|There are a lot of reading assignments in this class.|
|I can’t believe how many reading assignments there are!|
|Note: These two examples are not necessarily bad examples of using expletive pronouns. They are included to help you first understand what expletive pronouns are so you can recognize them.|
The main reason you should generally avoid writing with expletive pronouns is that they often cause us to use more words in the rest of the sentence than we have to. Also, the empty words at the beginning tend to shift the more important subject matter toward the end of the sentence. The above sentences are not that bad, but at least they are simple enough to help you understand what expletive pronouns are. Here are some more examples of expletive pronouns, along with better alternatives.
|Original: There are some people who love to cause trouble.
Revision: Some people love to cause trouble.
|Original: There are some things that are just not worth waiting for.
Revision: Some things are just not worth waiting for.
|Original: There is a person I know who can help you fix your computer.
Revision: I know a person who can help you fix your computer.
When you find yourself using expletives, always ask yourself if omitting and rewriting would give your reader a clearer, more direct, less wordy sentence. Can I communicate the same message using fewer words without taking away from the meaning I want to convey or the tone I want to create?
5. Choose Specific Wording
You will give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words. Evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch with your word choices. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” But this statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd, since “odd” is an abstract word that does not suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell, painting a picture for your readers.
Inclusive language is integral to business communication. Inclusive language means words, phrases or tones that do not contain discriminatory, stereotyped or prejudiced ideas of groups of people. By being inclusive in the way you write, you will not exclude any members of your audience.
- Use gender-neutral terms. For example, instead of saying “Becoming a fireman requires intensive training,” you could say “Becoming a firefighter requires intensive training.”
- Use the singular “they” instead of “he or she.” For example, instead of saying, “A communicator should understand his or her audience,” you could say, “A communicator should understand their audience” or “Communicators should understand their audience.”
- Be specific when discussing a person’s identity and use the terminology they prefer. For example, instead of saying “Marilyn Gabriel is a First Nations person,” you could say “Marilyn Gabriel is a member of the Kwantlen Nation.” Usually, a person’s disability isn’t relevant, but if it is, use neutral and specific language. For example, instead of saying “Brent is confined to a wheelchair” (which is both inaccurate, negative and vague), you could say “Brent uses a wheelchair” or “Brent has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.” When in doubt, ask the person what terminology they prefer.
- Question the assumptions that you make about your audience. Consider that many of your readers might not share the same cultural values or experiences. For example, a sentence like “Every child waits all year for Christmas morning,” doesn’t consider that many of your readers might not have shared this experience.
Biased language can alienate your audience. You can also project a negative image of your company, products or services among those who feel targeted by that bias. Always revise your document to make sure that the language is inclusive.
An appropriate business writing style can be formal or informal, depending on the context, but it should always reflect favourably on the writer and the organization.
End of Chapter Activities
3a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
3b. Discussion Questions
- Select at least three examples of writing from different kinds of sources, such as a government Website, a textbook, a popular magazine, and a novel. According to the style characteristics discussed in this section, how would you characterize the style of each? Select a paragraph to rewrite in a different style—for example, if the style is formal, make it informal; if the selection is written in the active voice, make it passive. Discuss your results with your classmates.
- What are some qualities of a good business writing style? What makes certain styles more appropriate for business than others? Discuss your thoughts with a classmate.
- Find an example of a piece of writing that doesn’t include inclusive language. How would you edit it to make the language more inclusive?
3c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Revising for style and tone
The student union is organizing an international student showcase on campus. Tyler, a member of the student union, is helping to organize speakers for the event. He reaches out to the faculty advisor to ask for suggestions on speakers. The faculty advisor recommends a few speakers including Gene Wensworth, an immigration consultant.
Tyler decides to invite Gene Wensworth and prepares the first draft of his message. Before he sends it, he decides to forward it to the faculty advisor for her opinion. The faculty advisor responds with a section highlighted and asks Tyler to edit for style and tone. The highlighted section is shown below.
Dear Mr. or Mrs. Wensworth,
We would appreciate your presence at our forthcoming conference on Making the Transition: From Student to Business Professional on June 15th. Your bountiful knowledge regarding immigration would undoubtedly benefit students as they prepare to journey along the path to becoming top of the line working professionals.
How can Tyler revise this section? What is some general advice you can give to Tyler about style and tone in writing?
3d. Writing Activity
Watch this video from TED.com Lost in Translation: The Joy of a Jargon-free World. Summarize the video. Evaluate your summary based on the five principles for writing in plain language mentioned in this chapter.
BC Public Service Agency. (n.d.). Words Matter- Guidelines on using inclusive language in the workplace. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/careers/all-employees/working-with-others/words-matter
This chapter contains content from Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative.