How do I create a professional tone in my writing without sounding too formal?
To answer this question, we first need to understand what “tone” means when it applies to a piece of writing,
Your writing tone is your attitude toward both your reader and your subject. Many writers mishandle tone in business writing because they think about their relationship to just one of these elements. This tends to happen when the subject is deemed so serious that it’s more important than the reader.
But here’s the key thing to remember: in a business context, nothing is ever more important than your reader and the relationship you’re building with them.
As a point of contrast, let’s consider a scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal. In this situation, the writer takes a respectful and objective tone toward the subject and a neutral, even distant, tone toward the audience.
Tone in scientific writing
In a scientific article, the subject demands a respectful tone because the writer is claiming that their scientific findings are making a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. When discussing weighty matters, it’s appropriate to avoid markers of casual language, such as contractions, slang, and distortions of grammar “rules.”
According to traditions of scientific inquiry, the subject also requires the writer to maintain an objective stance to emphasize the purity of the scientific observations. For the research findings to appear credible, conventional wisdom says they must appear untainted by the researcher’s personal biases.
The need for a respectful, objective tone manifests as a style dense with technical terms and word choices we’d find in Victorian novels rather than in a modern-day newspaper. It also shows up in long sentences and indirect phrasing that favours the passive voice. (In the passive voice, the subject of a sentence doesn’t perform the action but is acted upon. For example: “The specimen was measured before and after immersion in the bath.”)
At the same time, this conventional scientific style all but ignores the reader. Apart from perhaps a few section headings, the writing makes little effort to enhance readability. In the academic context, content counts for more than accessibility.
In fact, the dense, opaque style assumes that readers should be willing to invest a great deal of effort to extract the article’s meaning. The high level of reading difficulty intentionally restricts access to privileged information. It creates a red velvet rope around the knowledge the article contains: if you’re not an expert in the field, you’re not meant to enter.
Adapting to business readers
Readers of scientific articles accept the writer’s standoffish attitude toward them because they agree that the subject matter deserves all the attention. Academic journals aren’t forums for relationship-building; that’s what conferences are for. Within the pages of a journal, readers and writers keep their distance so everyone can focus on the science.
Business readers, however, hold different expectations. Before someone decides to do business with you, they want to know more than just what you know. They need to grasp who you are and understand why they should trust you.
This means that business writing can’t afford the exclusive tone science writing uses. In business writing, your attitude toward the reader counts as much, if not more, than your attitude toward your subject matter.
Rather than holding your reader at arm’s length, adopt style moves that will draw them in. Aim to create a professional, but conversational tone that fosters rapport and trust.
Here are some of the ways to achieve a balanced style that shows your respect for both your subject and your audience:
- Shorten your sentences.
- Choose everyday words, unless you need to use a technical term for accuracy’s sake.
- Use contractions in emails, informal reports, and marketing collateral.
- Wherever possible, refer to yourself as “I” and your organization as “we.”
- Minimize use of the passive voice; save it for situations where alternative wording could compromise accuracy.
- Use short, punchy verbs rather than verbs plus long nouns (e.g., “We will develop” vs. “We will undertake the development of…”)
A simple way to make the tone of your business writing more inviting is to picture yourself delivering your writing in a face-to-face conversation. In person, few of us resort to such stiff phrases as “Enclosed herewith” or “As per our discussion.”
Trust yourself to communicate naturally, and you will naturally build trust with your reader.
What writing question is on your mind? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
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