Setting the (Right) Tone in Professional Communications

January 2019

Image: iStock

The objective of the phrase “just do it” can be transformed in many different ways depending upon the accompanying tone. It could be orally stated in a crushing indifferent manner, or it could be boldly stylized as seen in Nike’s signature 30-year-old “JUST DO IT” campaign that continues to inspire all fitness levels to embrace exercise (while donning Nike products).

Conveying an appropriate tone of voice that is aligned with your brand (company or personal) should be a paramount consideration because it projects feeling and judgement. The success of the intended interpretation of your content—words and imagery—hinges on your tone. Whether in the role of a marketer producing material for your company or personally communicating with others, it’s your tone that greatly influences perception.

Science behind communicating

Two studies, led by professor of psychology Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., highlight the role nonverbal communication plays in the expression of feelings and emotional states. Drawing on the combined findings of the two studies, Mehrabian formulated the 7-38-55% rule (see diagram). From that communication model, it appears that more information is conveyed by non-verbal elements, which reflect a person’s feelings and opinions. Mehrabian’s theory reminds us that where visual prompts are lacking, great attention must be paid to the words used and the way they are expressed to ensure that the correct message is communicated.

Corporate communications: establish and document your brand’s style

Years ago, I worked with a wordsmith who believed that each word on a page should be scrutinized to assure the established tone was cohesive. Striking the right attitude when writing content and pairing those words with effective visuals is a major contributor to your marketing effort’s success. Here are some tips on how to send the right message through your content:

  • Understand the distinct tone and style of your brand and of your audience and speak their language.
  • Establish a consistent tone in your corporate communications—one that reflects your company’s core values.
  • Create content that connects with customers on an emotional level, making them feel like part of a group of like-minded people.
  • Collaborate with writers and designers to assure that your brand is communicated with clarity and impact.
  • Demonstrate your company’s expertise, playfulness or other attribute through words and imagery to set you apart from your competition.
  • Document your company’s “voice” in a style guide to help keep your message consistent.

Personal communications: avoid polarizing others 

We’ve all likely had an encounter with that person whose abrupt manner leaves one feeling like you’ve just been flattened by a steamroller. Or, maybe it’s you who has that effect on others. The anonymity of social media has brought a degradation of polite interactions in public places as people now often address one another with dismissive tones and cruelty when a contrary opinion is rendered. This type of escalation was perfectly illustrated in a recent Saturday Night Live skit when Matt Damon and Leslie Jones locked horns over the band Weezer. Civility needs a comeback!

These tips may help you polish your approach or deal with “tone-deaf” peers:

  • Examine your underlying feelings which may be causing poor communication and confused reactions.
  • Work with others to identify and discuss a sticking point and then create a plan to solve the issue. 
  • Remain calm and don’t allow personal troubles or biases to create turmoil in the workplace, or at home. 
  • Be that good and respectful listener.

As marketers, designers or team members, the tone we set in everything from corporate communications to participating in a conference call with clients or peers has immediate and lasting impact.  

Thank you for reading this.

—Maureen Joyce