About a month ago, I followed a guy on Twitter and received an auto-direct message thanking me for following him. I always read direct messages and try to connect with people who I have something in common with. Most messages are a simple “thank you,” but occasionally, the person talks a little about what they do. This particular guy told me that I should check out his blog because he writes the only “real” blog with advice for writers.
As someone who also has a writing advice blog, I immediately felt defensive. Then I was annoyed. Then I wanted to click on his link a read a bit just to prove that he was a narcissistic hack. So that’s what I did.
Because I’m also not someone who backs down from a challenge, I replied to his message. “Thanks! I’ll have to check it out! I, too, have a ‘real’ writing blog.” I was surprised to get a response, but I was even more surprised by what he said: “Haha, there are actually lots of good writing blogs out there, but I’ve found that the cocky tone tends to get me more clicks.”
Then I felt a little bit bad for the guy because he clearly didn’t understand that his tone was throwing up a wall and not drawing people in. I imagine more people were turned off by his message than attracted. Besides, his tone had just shut down a potential relationship with a peer.
Your writing tone can serve you or hurt you, depending on every word that you say.
Always remember that you are trying to reach an audience and convert them to your cause, a sale, learning more, or giving you something. They can just as easily walk away (and possibly turn to a friendlier or less cocky business).
Though this may seem like common sense, you may find yourself writing to an audience under less than ideal circumstances. Perhaps someone just gave you bad news. Perhaps a client isn’t happy. Or perhaps someone pointed out a flaw in something you’ve written!
As you write, consider your tone.
- Are you being positive and confident? Or are you being negative or bragging? (There is such a fine line between bragging and being confident.)
- Are you talking down to people? Or will they read your note and maintain respect for you and your expertise?
- Are you being professional (not overly formal) when handling issues?
- Are you apologizing for things that aren’t your fault? (Don’t cave, but also accept responsibility when you need to!)
If you do find yourself dealing with a difficult situation, and you really need to be passionate, pull up an empty Word doc, and let it all out! Just don’t send it to anyone! Then, take some time to cool down and focus. Come back to the document with a calm mind and re-read what you wrote. Is this really what you want to say? Probably not. Re-write, or completely start over, and think about tone. Think about solving problems—not creating them!—and providing clear answers.
Tone is especially important when using social media. By all means, be conversational and engaging. Be positive, and educate your followers. You may, on occasion, run into someone who is intentionally antagonistic. How you handle people like that will demonstrate your professionalism to the throng. If the person continues to be an irritant without a legitimate disagreement and the ability to politely and respectfully have an exchange, though, don’t hesitate to ban them from you page, website, or community. You don’t want someone like that to disrupt what others hope to gain from engaging with you in the first place: your expertise and a safe place to talk about it.
Another important aspect of tone is selecting words that match your audience. If you are addressing a group of professionals, you could say that you can “alleviate the condition” with your service, but you probably wouldn’t address a more general audience this way. Perhaps a Facebook post would say “Cure the Blues with my Five-Step Process!”
Make sure that your tone is consistent throughout your piece and that it is appropriate for the audience you are addressing. You want your readers to feel like only one person wrote the work, no matter how long it is. For example, you don’t want to adopt a conversational tone in the introduction and then go into deep technical detail with a serious tone for the rest of the piece. It’s confusing to the reader, and they might stop reading because they are the wrong audience for a technical piece. It may affect your conversion of call-to-action supporters.
If you are writing for a web application, your style may need to include short (even one-sentence) paragraphs with bulleted lists and section headers. Breaks and white space are refreshing when you read online, so embrace them. For writing that is presented as a pdf, a Word doc, or a printed piece with definite pages, make sure that your paragraphs don’t stretch on forever. A typical 8.5 x 11 piece of paper should have at least two paragraphs on the page. Longer paragraphs tend to drag.
Have you already been thinking about tone and style? Tell me in the comments! And contact me with suggestions for future posts.