Using Tone In Communication For Effective Writing
“Forget spell check and focus on the art of communication at its core. It’s about understanding how people think and how to make them feel a certain way. Words can do that. Language does that.”
- Jess Thoms,
1.) “I’m not angry,” he whispered solemnly.
2.) “I’m not angry,” he shouted forcefully.
What’s the difference between #1 and #2?
First, the speaker in number one likely isn’t angry because he says he’s not angry in a “solemn” way. We imagine he says “I’m not angry” with his shoulders slouched, his head down, and a quivering lower lip. The second speaker truly does seem angry, though, as he shouts with force.
Notice that the spoken words are exactly the same, but the tone of voice has changed. There is a difference in tone between whispering and shouting. You can tell how the speaker is feeling not only by what he says but how he says it.
Secondly, think the writer of those sentences. The writer told us about the character’s state through specific language and word choice (diction). The author can make us feel a certain way about the character and the situation simply with the use of a verb and adverb.
That’s tone in a nutshell.
What Is Tone?
“Tone” is the feeling and reactions of a subject of content, portrayed through language and intonation of language.
Notice that our example above had two parts:
1.) The first part was expression. It was not just what the speaker said but how he said it. This expression is important to remember when thinking about the broad idea of a piece of content you are writing. How will you create a tone that reveals your opinion, feelings, and reactions to the given subject? How will that tone generate opinions, feelings, and reactions in your reader?
This reveals the attitude of the writer. It is the attitude about the subject matter and the attitude toward the audience.
2.) The second part was language. In order to get the character’s voice across, the author needed to use specific words and language. When writing, you need to take audible tone and make it visual through words on the page. This is accomplished by the diction you use to express the tone.
This is the use of diction, syntax, viewpoint, composition, and theme to linguistically transmit the attitude. Basically, when you can’t hear the author speaking, you pick up on their attitude and tone based on the language they use.
What Is The Purpose Of Tone?
Tone helps you better relate to your audience’s emotions, needs, wants, and interests. The better you can relate to them, the stronger their engagement with your content will be. Tone can build a connection between reader and writer (or reader and brand) by eliciting an emotional response from the reader.
Tone must be persuasive. Using tone in communication will directly influence your reader’s reaction. If you write in an angry tone about your competitors’ unethical sourcing, you’ll persuade your readers to be angry as well. If you write about their unethical sourcing in a factual, informational way, that may not elicit the same sort of angry response that would drive your customers to instead purchase from you.
Why do you want a specific emotional response?
Because it will help you sell your products, services, or ideas. It convinces the reader to sign up for the newsletter or purchase the good; maybe it prompts them to do more research or have further engagement with your brand. Not every piece is meant to sell, but every piece is meant to sell an idea. With that idea comes some sort of call to action for your reader.
We are emotional creatures, and we make decisions primarily by emotion over logic. Tone facilitates and generates the emotion that pushes us to make the decision to buy. Check out the article “How To Attract Readers Using Emotion” for more info on using emotional motivators to influence your readers.
How Do You Choose Tone?
If you’re a content writer of any type—whether you’re a novelist or a blogger, a beauty editor or a medical copywriter—you should use tone to create an outstanding piece with some sort of emotional response.
But how do you use tone in content writing?
Firstly, tone should not be consistent throughout all of your content. Unlike voice, which embodies your brand at its heart and soul, tone changes dependent upon the subject and the audience.
Say you run a mental health non-profit. You generally want to have an inspiring and happy “voice.” However, the tone of each piece won’t necessarily be happy. When you’re discussing the loss of life to mental health disorders, you might take a sad or frustrated or enraged tone. When you’re writing about all the people that showed up to your rally, you may take an excited or encouraging tone. When you’re presenting facts about mental health, you may take a more informational tone or even a conversational tone to make the facts more relatable.
Tone changes depending upon the reaction you want to elicit from that piece.
The steps of using tone in communication for written content:
- Determine how this piece of content fits in with the overall marketing strategy.
- When thinking of strategy, what is the purpose of the message? What reaction and response are you hoping to achieve?
- Who is the audience that will be reading this piece?
- What is the emotional response you wish to elicit from that audience? How will the tone set the mood for the reader to react to the piece?
- How will you take a unique perspective or opinion on the topic? How does this original viewpoint affect the tone you will use?
- How will the tone help convey your brand voice further?
- How will the tone bring about an action or decision in your reader? What are you driving your customers to do after finishing the piece?
Now, what words come to mind with this tone?
Formal or informal? Conversational or informational?
Funny? Sad? Goofy? Serious? Angry? Inspirational? Narrative? Playful?
Although tone can change depending upon the piece, it’s important to note that tone is still a representation of your brand voice. For example, if you are writing for a brand of luxury watches, you will never want to use a conversational or goofy tone. You’ll want to stick to elegant language that brings about a sense of indulgence. If you’re writing for a kid’s book company, though, you’ll never want to write with a formal or informational tone.
Tone is how you interact with your audience.
Before you write every piece, come up with one or two key words that will describe the tone you want to use for that content. A good rule of thumb: write in the same tone you would use to speak about that subject. How would you talk to your audience in person about this topic? Use that same tone and emotion in your writing.
How Do You Write Tone?
So you have an idea of the tone that you want to create… but how do you put it down on paper?
Language is at the heart of tone. Your diction and syntax allow you to represent your attitude, perspective, and feelings towards the content’s subject.
Diction: What words do you use?
In our initial example at the beginning of this piece, “whispered solemnly” revealed a different tone of voice than “shouted forcefully.” In the same way, the words that you use influence the way that the audience reads the piece.
Are you cursing in the piece (anger, fear, informality)? Are you using slang words (conversational)? Are you using long, academic words (informational, serious)?
“Cigarettes are bad for you.” versus “Cigarettes will kill you tomorrow.” versus “Every cigarette takes 7 minutes off of your life.” Each purpose is similar (that cigarettes are bad), but the diction used to describe the point elicits a different sort of response for different audiences.
Syntax: How do you string those words together?
1.) Once the dancer was spinning, she couldn’t stop for eight turns.
2.) The dancer was spinning and spinning and spinning, weightlessly lifted from the floor and propelling herself into the air, spinning and spinning and spinning.
Both of these sentences basically say the same thing: the dancer was spinning a lot. But the way the words are used in the sentence creates varying tones. The first sentence gives off an informational tone. It is short and sweet and to the point. It gives us a tangible number of turns: eight. The second sentence gives us a more airy, exciting feeling. The sentence is fast-paced and drawn-out, almost as though the reader is spinning along with the dancer.
Syntax is a way of using tone in communication by reflecting the pace, inflection, and pitch in the written word.
Neither sentence is necessarily better in general. Rather, each works to create a different tone and response.
Are you writing in sentences that are: short and staccato? fast-paced? long and drawn-out? backwards?
What kinds of punctuation do you use?!
Which phrases come first? How do you create the structure of your sentence?
For example, number 2 in this section is changed in tone if you instead write: “The dancer was spinning and spinning, weightlessly lifted, and spinning, from the floor, and spinning and spinning, propelling herself into the air, and spinning. Notice how it changes from fast-paced and drawn-out to slow and precise… even though the words are exactly the same, but just in a different order?
Take a unique spin.
Speaking of spinning, you want to take a unique spin on every piece of content that you write. There are millions of pieces of content available to us at our fingertips. In fact, 2 million new blog posts are added to the web each day. Using a novel, fresh tone can make your piece stand out amongst the rest.
Look at what tone others use to write about the topic you will be addressing. What is their tone? How is it working? How could you use a different tone to fashion a unique viewpoint?
Whatever your tone is, it should be surprising.
For example, the book, “What’s Your Poop Telling You?” is a serious topic, with serious consequences, written by serious medical professionals. But this book takes a lighter and goofier approach to a topic that usually has a grave tone. They’ve made more money than other poop books by simply changing the tone.
Know and compose your tone.
When you create an outline or initial guide for your piece, you should consider the strategy. Write your chosen tone in big, bold letters at the top. “FUNNY” or “ANGRY.” Or you can write the response you want to get from that tone. “PURCHASE BOOK BECAUSE THEY ARE SO CURIOUS.” This is a great way to ensure every sentence of your piece is in relation to the tone and reaction you want to stimulate.
Tone comes alive through stories and examples. Notice that this piece gives you sample sentences to help you grasp the information… while it also uses a conversational and relatable tone.
Stories, descriptions, and narrative strengthen your tone. This creates a potent quality that gives you the opportunity to connect with your reader in an emotionally engaging way.
Keep your tone consistent.
Consistency is key in branding, content strategy, and selling. Keep the tone consistent throughout the piece in order to ensure you get the necessary emotional reaction that will drive your customers to action.
Tone changes depending on the subject…but not drastically. You should always ensure that your tone is consistent with the brand voice as well as the subject matter.
If you’re a freelancer, you might want to consider holding a few clients long-term, rather than writing one-and-done projects. This can help you better understand your clients’ voices and tones. This helps boost the quality of the content and minimizes your per-brand learning curve.
If you’re a company or content marketer, hire a consistent writer—whether on board, freelancing, or through a content company like Palm Beach Content Co. Different writers use tone and voice differently. Maintaining the same writer or set of writers will help grow your brand voice and utilize the correct tone in your pieces to avoid inconsistencies and discontinuities. Plus, the better they know your brand, the better they can write content to sell your products and services.
The Bottom Line
Tone is your attitude towards a subject revealed through written language. The tone influences how your reader will emotionally respond to the content and subject; this, in turn, influences how they feel about the brand and how they will react or make decisions accordingly.
Look at one of the most recent pieces of content you’ve written. Look at it from a third-party view. What sort of tone does it have? Is the tone relevant to the subject? Is it a surprising and unique take on the topic? How does the tone make you feel about the information? What descriptions and stories become the breath and blood of the piece?
Now, rewrite that piece in a tone completely opposite from the one you currently have. What would happen if you went from a formal tone to an informal one? Goofy to serious? Re-write the pieces and see how the tone would influence the reader’s response in a different way.
If you’re struggling to see tone in your own piece, go to related articles about the same subject as yours. How do those authors use tone? How do you feel about that piece based on their tone? How can you change the tone in your own piece in a way that will create a unique response and call to action?