Style and tone are often considered interchangeable and there are some blurry distinctions between the two. But for our purposes, style refers to elements such as active versus passive writing, varied sentence lengths, flow, variety of word use, and punctuation choices. Style gives your writing a type of personality when coupled together with tone. As with the audience and format, it’s important that the style you choose matches with the intended purpose of your message.
Similar in some ways to style, tone refers to the feeling your audience will get when they decode your document. Here you would ask yourself if your tone is formal, informal, positive, negative, polite, direct, or indirect. The purpose of asking yourself this question is to determine whether the tone suits or otherwise enhances the purpose of your intended message.
Let’s begin by considering and thinking about the following scenarios.
Scenarios for reflection
Consider the following lines from business emails. How would you describe the tone of each entry? What words, phrases, or other elements suggest that tone?
- “Maybe if the project leader had set a reasonable schedule from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
- “Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough. Thanks for working so hard on this.”
- “I’m not sure what else is on your plate right now, but I need these numbers by this afternoon—actually in the next two hours.”
- “I cant remember when u said this was due.”
- “While I appreciate that your team is being pulled in a number of different directions right now, this project is my department’s main priority for the semester. What can we do from our end to set your group up to complete this by June?
Whether in a workplace or in our personal lives, most of us have received emails that we’ve found off-putting, inappropriate, or, at a minimum, curt. Striking the right tone and being diplomatic, particularly in business communication, can mean the difference between offending your reader and building important professional relationships. And more immediately, it can mean the difference between getting what you want and being ignored.
As with any piece of writing, considering audience, purpose, and type of information is key to constructing business communication. Truly finessing your writing so that it works for you, rather than against you, is key to forming strong professional relationships and being effective in your own position.
Developing an appropriate business writing style will reflect well on you and increase your success in any career. Misspellings of individual words or grammatical errors involving misplacement or incorrect word choices in a sentence can create confusion, lose meaning, and have a negative impact on the reception of your message. Which style you use will depend on your audience, context, channel, and the purpose of the message (among other reasons).
Informal style is a casual style of writing. It differs from standard business English in that it often makes use of colourful expressions, slang, and regional phrases. As a result, it can be difficult to understand for an English learner or a person from a different region of the country. Sometimes colloquialism takes the form of a word difference; for example, the difference between a “Coke,” a “tonic,” a “pop,” and a “soda pop” primarily depends on where you live.
This type of writing uses colloquial language, such as the style of writing that is often used in texting:
ok fwiw i did my part n put it in where you asked but my ? is if the group does not participate do i still get credit for my part of what i did n also how much do we all have to do i mean i put in my opinion of the items in order do i also have to reply to the other team members or what? Thxs
While we may be able to grasp the meaning of the message and understand some of the abbreviations, this informal style is generally not appropriate in business communications. That said, colloquial writing may be permissible, and even preferable, in some limited business contexts. For example, a marketing letter describing a folksy product such as a wood stove or an old-fashioned popcorn popper might use a colloquial style to create a feeling of relaxing at home with loved ones. Still, it is important to consider how colloquial language will appear to the audience. Will the meaning of your chosen words be clear to a reader who is from a different part of the country? Will a folksy tone sound like you are “talking down” to your audience, assuming that they are not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate standard English? A final point to remember is that colloquial style is not an excuse for using expressions that are sexist, racist, profane, or otherwise offensive.
In business writing, often the appropriate style will have a degree of formality. Writers using a formal style tend to use a more sophisticated vocabulary—a greater variety of words, and more words with multiple syllables—not for the purpose of throwing big words around, but to enhance the formal mood of the document. They also tend to use more complex syntax, resulting in sentences that are longer and contain more subordinate clauses. That said, it’s still critically important to ensure the words you use are precise, relevant, and convey the appropriate and accurate meaning! This writing style may use the third person and may also avoid using contractions. However, this isn’t always the case.
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.
Negative: You did not complete the exam.
Negative: Your holiday time is not approved until your manager clears it.
Avoid using multiple negatives in one sentence, as this will make your sentence difficult to understand. When readers encounter more than one negative construct in a sentence, their brains have to do more cognitive work to decipher the meaning; multiple negatives can create convoluted sentences that bog the reader down.
Negative: A decision will not be made unless all board members agree.
Negative: The event cannot be scheduled without a venue.
So what is professional writing anyways?
If you answered “it depends,” you are correct.
Audiences have expectations and needs 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. However, if 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. The skilled business writer will know their 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.
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, of 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.
In the next chapter, we’ll discuss plain language, including how and why to do so.
This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 4.4 “Style in written communication” and Chapter 6.2 “Writing style” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license) and Part 2 “Writing” in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team (used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license). You can download Professional Communications OER for free at http://www.procomoer.org/.