Business writing: why you shouldn’t tone it down

Posted on 28 February 2014 by attica_writing

Having worked in internal communications for over five years now, I have read more business documents than I care to remember, and have written a fair few during my career too. It can be a fine line between something that’ll bore me and something that’ll inspire me – and that fine line is tone.

Tone is writing in a way that makes it clear how you feel and, more importantly, encouraging your reader to feel that way too.

Think about the documents, newsletters or blogs that captivated you; that you read right to the end; that made you giggle at your desk like a naughty school kid; that inspired you to put in 110% that day. Your response was not due to the subject matter; it was because of tone (although the array of emails containing just cat pictures that circle the office would sometimes lead you to believe otherwise).

Often with business writing we’re reluctant to have an opinion; we’re worried that others will get too great an insight into who we are or that our reader won’t agree with us. It is safer to write in a formal manner all the time, right? Wrong!

Any kind of communication should have a purpose. It might be to make people aware of something, to change the way they act or think, or to generate emotion. That’s why tone is so important. Tone is what brings your reader along with you.

My top tip is to work out the purpose of your communication first, and then figure out how you want to talk about.

If your company is passionate about customer service, then think how you would feel in your customer’s position before you write to them. If they might be nervous about a change, put them at ease with encouraging language and simple reasons why not to worry. If they should be excited about a new service or offer, use superlatives and punctuation to share in their excitement.

Another tip is to display your company’s values in the way you write. This indicates that your business means what it says. At City & Guilds, imagination is really important to us; not only in how we work every day but for developing new products and services for our customers. So we bring our writing to life with creative language and stories to engage our readers.

Don’t be afraid to have a view or to evoke a response from your reader. You should be more afraid of your readers nodding off after the first paragraph or doubting whether your company genuinely cares about a topical issue.

But remember, if you don’t have a clear purpose for your communication then unfortunately no amount of wit, storytelling or provocative language will solve that. Just like bangers and mash, Laurel and Hardy or Batman and Robin, purpose and tone work better together.

About the author

Pippa Arthur-Van Praagh, Senior Strategic Communications Manager at the City & Guilds Group
Pippa has worked in communications for over five years, supporting senior executives and businesses to develop internal communications strategies and channels that improve access to information, global collaboration and overall business performance.

Pippa is passionate about enterprise social, storytelling and supporting more women into leadership positions.

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