When I came online several years ago, I suffered a bit of culture shock. My normal tone of voice, the one I used in everyday speech that was always well received, was instantly inappropriate online.
I wasn’t a jerk. I wasn’t rude. I wasn’t cursing people out. But often, the mood of written conversation with peers, colleagues and clients would change from friendly discussion to prickly defence.
And I couldn’t figure out why.
I’d look back over what I’d written and wonder what I’d said. I’d examine the discussion to see where I’d gone wrong. It was puzzling – nothing seemed out of place at all. It was all good, all normal.
So why did it feel like I’d suddenly pissed someone off?
You probably know the answer to this one by now – plenty of articles out there talk about the importance of body language in communication. Except online, in writing, there aren’t any bodies at all.
We can’t see smiles or friendly expressions. We can’t hear a person’s voice when we read an email. We’re missing the details that help us perceive the mood of the moment. All we see are blunt words. Black and white.
And lacking those important visual and auditory cues to fill in the blanks of intended tone, those words often read like machine-gun bullets.
No wonder people get prickly.
I quickly learned how to make sure my true tone of voice and mood rang through loud and clear in my written communication. My straightforward writing style got smoothed out with an extra dose of friendly. I learned the fine art of diplomacy and gift-wrapping. I figured out how to create that “we’re buddies” feeling in my words.
But many people don’t – or maybe they just aren’t aware they’re firing away and leaving people feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut.
Here are a few examples, and I’m sure you’ll see how blunt these snippets come off to you as a reader. You’ve probably received “friendly requests” just like these yourself:
- “Call me today at 1pm.” (Is that an order?)
- “I want this project to begin immediately.” (Yes, sir!)
- “Rearrange your schedule.” (Um, can I get a please, at least?)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these requests, and they were written by really great people who had the best intentions in mind. They’re just straightforward, no-fluff sentences typed out by busy people. Nothing more.
But invariably, they come off bossy. Pushy. Demanding.
And if one of these sentences landed in your inbox, you’d probably immediately feel a touch defensive. You wouldn’t much feel like rearranging your schedule or hopping right to it. In fact, you might even deliberately reply that you can’t take the call or that you’re schedule’s booked until Friday.
Uh huh. I know you’re nodding.
Imagine how much better these “requests” would sound with a bit of friendliness tossed in to smooth out that straightforward tone:
- “Would you be able to call me today at 1pm?” (Certainly. Which number should I call?)
- “Would it be possible to start right away?” (Absolutely. We’ve already set the project in motion.)
- “I know you’re busy and probably have your day booked, but would you be able to squeeze us in?” (I think so. Let me look at my schedule and get back to you.)
It didn’t take much to rephrase these sentences and write them with conscious attention to tone.
That’s the key to good communication: conscious attention.
When you write, think about how your tone might come off to the reader, a person who actually has no idea of your current mood. Remember the recipient can’t see you’re all laid back and casual, or that you’re feeling happy and bright. You feel good, sure, and you unconsciously assume everyone in the world knows it – but they don’t.
Not unless you tell them. Since they can’t see you or hear you, they have to guess at your mood and implied tone. And unless you want to inadvertently create a tense mood, you’d better pay attention to your written voice and tone.
Each and every time you write.
Here are a few fast tips to turn any straightforward sentence and harsh-sounding email into a friendly request – and if you consciously apply these tips to your written communication for a week, you’ll bask in the glorious results of happy dialogue with each person you write to, every single time:
- Ask, don’t tell. Turn every straightforward sentence into a question. Using “would you…?” for any request that requires an action response heightens compliance immensely. In fact, parenting experts frequently suggest using “would you…?” to create helpful family harmony with rebellious, wilful or stubborn children.
- Use emoticons. I don’t give a damn whether you feel they’re unprofessional or not. Erring on the side of caution and tossing in a smiley is far safer than taking a risk your “professionalism” properly carries a friendly tone. (Because in most cases, you’d be wrong.)
- Use exclamation marks. Don’t overdo it and come off like some excited Valley Girl squeezing all over, but use exclamation marks here and there to stress that you’re feeling upbeat. “I had a great week!” looks a lot better than a flat “I had a great week.”
- Read emails aloud – with a smile. Before you hit send, get your mood on. Put a smile on your face (a big one), sit straighter and read your email out loud with your intended tone in mind so you can literally hear your own voice, tone and inflections. A sentence sounds flat? Punch it up fast with a or a !
- Use humour. Laugh at yourself. “This email probably sounds like bullets from a machine gun, but it’s just because I’m actually racing around like a chicken this week – hope nobody decides they want roast for supper!”
- Write a disclaimer. It sounds silly, but sometimes, starting your email off with a quick disclaimer sets the tone of conversation for greatness. “It’s 6am and I haven’t had enough coffee yet. So just in case it doesn’t come through, I’m writing this with a smile on my face and feeling great.” Then fire away.
And if you really aren’t that great with written communication and know that your writing skills fall a little short, do everyone a favour: use the phone. Send an email that says, “I’m not used to writing and I want to make sure my tone comes across properly. Would we be able to set up a call?” No harm in that, and you’ll probably have a great conversation.
Oh, and just in case you’ve suffered a few bullets lately and you’re feeling a little defensive from some straightforward communication, here’s an idea:
Copy the link to this article, paste it into an email, and write, “Wow, what a great article! I had the same situation happen to me this week. Have you ever had this happen? I’m forwarding it to everyone I know!”
Send it to the person who really needs a brush-up refresher on how to write emails with a friendly tone.