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Summary

The following summary for this module outlines five key steps to understanding and applying tone appropriately. Feel free to print this off and use as a tool for future reference.

STEP 1: UNDERSTAND THE THREE LEVELS OF TONE

The first step to being able to understand tone and apply it appropriately is to understand the meaning of each of the three types and their proper application.

PositiveWhen to USEWhen to AVOID

By positive tone, we mean your responses are generally friendly, personable and nonthreatening.

Use positive tone when you are sharing:

  • good news or
  • news that will not have a negative emotional response.

Avoid positive tone when you are delivering information that is likely to generate a negative emotional response. Never say something like, "We are pleased to inform you that your bank received a 5 rating."

Any negative news should be tempered with neutral or stressed with negative tone, not positive.

NegativeWhen to USEWhen to AVOID

By negative tone, we mean your responses are generally reticent (but professional) in an effort to communicate consequences that are at stake.

Use negative tone to deliver:
  • serious information or
  • serious consequences that clearly need the reader's immediate attention.

Avoid negative tone when the situation is not critical. For example, if you have a cooperative audience that is experiencing a first offense, there is no reason to use negative tone.

NeutralWhen to USEWhen to AVOID

By neutral tone, we mean your responses are generally unexpressive and tempered.

Use neutral tone to:

  • temper a reader's response to news that might generate an unnecessarily emotional reaction or 
  • to deliver nonemotional information

Avoid neutral tone when you need to communicate something in a particularly positive or negative manner. If it is positive, use positive. If it is a grave situation that demands immediate attention, use negative.

STEP 2: UNDERSTAND PASSIVE VOICE

The second step is to understand the characteristics of passive voice.

Passive voice has three characteristics:

  • There is always a form of the verb to be.
  • There is always a past participle.
  • The subject is being acted upon; the subject is NOT acting.

If the form of the verb to be and the past participle are missing, it is not passive voice… it is active voice!

Once you can identify passive voice, you can use the following decision table to determine whether or not you should use passive voice or not.

StepQuestion
1.Are you delivering good news, bad news or just information?
IfThenExamples
Good news Consider active voice, which achieves a more positive tone.We are happy to inform you that you received a 1 rating!
Bad news Go to step #2. 
InformationConsider what is best for your situation. Either passive or active could be appropriate.Passive: The form is enclosed.

Active: We enclosed the form.

 

2.If you are delivering bad news, do you want to emphasize the receiver or the doer?
IfThenExamples
The receiver (what happened is more important than who did it)Consider passive voice, which achieves a more neutral tone when delivering bad news.The report was not delivered on time.
The doer (who did it is more important or just as important as what happened)Consider active voice, which achieves a more negative tone when delivering bad news.Management failed to deliver the report on time.

 

STEP 3: UNDERSTAND WRITING STYLE—PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL WRITING

The third step is to understand the characteristics of writing style; that is, the characteristics of personal and impersonal writing. 

  • The characteristics of personal writing are personal pronouns, proper nouns and (often, but not always) active voice.
  • While they are not proper nouns, often job descriptions, such as the cashier or the lender, are used in writing, and these also personalize writing. 
  • The characteristics of impersonal writing are even simpler, because they are the opposite of those for personal writing: no personal pronouns, no proper nouns and (often, but not always) passive voice. 
  • Use personal writing to achieve either a positive or negative tone, realizing that personal writing influences tone only so much as that of the situation in which it is used.
  • Use impersonal writing when you are delivering nonemotional information—not good news or bad news—and when you are delivering news that might unnecessarily upset the reader and you want to temper your reader's reactions.

Once you can identify personal and impersonal writing, you can use the following decision table to determine which is appropriate to use.

StepQuestion
1.Are you delivering good news, bad news or just information?
IfThenExamples
Good news Consider personal writing, which achieves a more positive tone.We are happy to inform you that you received a 1 rating!
Bad news Go to step #2. 
InformationConsider impersonal writing, which achieves a more neutral tone.Enclosed is the expected paperwork.
2.If you are delivering bad news, do you want to emphasize who is responsible?
IfThenExamples
NoConsider impersonal, which achieves a more neutral tone.The report was not delivered on time.
YesConsider personal, which achieves a more negative tone.Management failed to deliver the report on time.

 

STEP 4: UNDERSTAND WORD CHOICE

While things like passive and active voice and writing style contribute to tone, word choice will generally dictate the tone.

Choose your words carefully.

When writing reports, much of the tone throughout will be neutral as we convey our findings to the board.  We are sharing information.  Only those areas where we want to generate a response will take on either a positive or a negative tone. 

STEP 5: UNDERSTAND PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE

There are two final things to consider when deciding which tone to use: audience and purpose.

  • Is your audience cooperative?
  • Is your purpose to inform (present information), get attention (get them to comply with a law) or make an observation (encourage them to do something in their best interest)?

Your audience and purpose will determine your tone, as indicated in the table below:

When Your Purpose is to Inform:When Your Purpose is to Get Attention:When Your Purpose is To Make An Observation:

Use Positive Tone for:

  • Good news
  • Cooperative audiences

Use Neutral Tone for:

  • Tempering overreactions to requests that might be met with resistance from an uncooperative audience

Use Positive Tone for:

  • Cooperative audiences

Use Neutral Tone for:

  • General information with no emotional value
  • Cooperative audiences

Use Negative Tone for:

  • Prior requests for attention that have been ignored (uncooperative audience)
  • Severe situation in which immediate attention is necessary (any audience)

Use Neutral Tone for:

  • Tempering overreactions from an uncooperative audience that might scoff at any suggestion (required or not)
  • Cooperative audiences

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