ToneKnobI can still hear the “record scratch” from that fateful night. I arrived at my favorite venue to watch soccer, pulled up a seat at the bar next to my pals, and then it happened. It just came out. What I meant to say was “What’s up guys! Barça’s got this one in the bag! Messi’s good for a hat trick tonight. He’s amazing!” But that’s not what came out. Instead, I shouted “How now, my hardy, stout, resolved mates? Soon shall Barça’s brows be bound with victorious wreaths! A quaff carouses to Messi’s health! His eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes drop tears!” And somehow, instead of a pint of beer, I was suddenly holding a goblet of mead. Everyone was confused by this Elizabethan outburst, including myself. Needless to say, I was roundly ridiculed and relegated to some dark, isolated corner of the bar until I felt confident that I could express myself appropriately. And thus I learned a harsh lesson about the importance of communicating in the proper tone.

The reality is that “choosing the appropriate tone” is something I still struggle with from time to time. It has always been my nature to communicate with a certain degree of informality that is, quite frankly, inappropriate in many contexts. Beyond simply feeling more comfortable speaking or writing in a casual tone, I actually feel like I can express my point most effectively in this manner. Perhaps I’m not alone in this. Before they feel natural, or at least somewhat comfortable, formality and rigidity (AKA: communicating as a productive, tax-paying, respectable adult) require practice for many people. As an English major back in my college days, I was reminded of this constantly and had to face the fact, lest I continue to get Cs on all of my papers. But after a bit of practice, I started to get the hang of it, while never losing touch with my natural “voice”. So, that’s what I’m rambling about today: communicating your message with the appropriate voice. A few simple but effective points to consider …

The “A” word. How often we forget to ask this, the most important of questions: who is my audience? Who among us is not guilty of letting the message dictate our tone with little to no consideration for the recipient of the message? If there were 7 deadly sins of communication, this would be in the running for deadliest. Perhaps “audience oversight” is more likely to occur in written communication than speech, since we’re generally given the luxury of immediate feedback and cues from our audience when we’re communicating in person or on the phone. But, if we’re writing an email, for example, the feedback we receive isn’t in real-time. It’s easier to spend less energy thinking about who is reading the message and how they might be interpreting every little word, and just focus more on writing to get the point across. In short, above all else, audience dictates tone. Whatever earth-shattering and profound statement you’re making can, and likely will, be obscured or completely overlooked if you don’t match your voice to the requirements of your reader.

Mode of delivery. We’ve touched on this before, but it’s a point that bears repeating, even in the context of “appropriate tone”. Carefully consider the means by which you’re delivering your message. Email, phone call, carrier pigeon, etc., all give you, interlocutor extraordinaire, a canvas on which to craft your message. Each medium provides its own set of advantages and limitations. Furthermore, the manner by which you deliver your communication carries its own implicit hint or message. And your audience (noticing a theme yet?) will pick up on that implicit message. For example, anybody remember that warm fuzzy we used to get when we received a hand-written letter in the mail from a friend or long-lost relative? (They LOVE me … they REALLY LOVE me!) And that’s before even reading the letter! What about that not-so-fresh feeling you get when your spam filter fails you and suddenly you realize that you’ve been mysteriously added to the mailing list? (I feel so CHEAP … so VIOLATED!) These are the kinds of cues your audience will pick up on too!

Extra eyes. We all know how important proofreading and quality assurance checks are to ensure we avoid misspelled words, grammar errors, and similar mistakes that we all encounter in our writing. But equally important are checks for appropriate tone, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have someone other than you perform that check. For obvious reasons, an extra set of eyes can give us a much better outsider’s perspective than if we try to review the writing on our own. Sure, adding “tone” to your proofreading list will take a little extra time, but your audience will benefit from it!

Well, that’s about all I’ve got for you today, friends: three simple but effective tips to help keep you from being relegated to some dark, dingy corner of your own bar by creating some type of tone-related faux pas. Until next time, parting is such sweet sorrow to thee that art to me as secret and as dear, but my hour is almost come. Pray remember that I have done thee worthy service. Oh geez … Elizabethan relapse. Sorry.

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