‘Which side of the bed did you get up this morning?’
That’s the question that several people attending my training courses have been asked by their bosses.
And anyone who works in public research will know that once two or three people say the same thing there is probably some wider truth in it. (In the same way, MPs know that it is time to sit up and take notice of us once they get a handful of letters reporting the same thing.).
After reading a piece of my training delegates’ writing – a report, blog post, whatever – their bosses said to them, “What mood were you in when you wrote that?!”
So, what exactly did they mean?
And what do we conclude?
Answer: That the tone of voice of our writing is dependent not just on obvious things (see later) but also on which side of the bed we get up.
Not literally of course …
The boss’ meant: whether the trains were running on time and the sun was shining, did their team win last night, and did they had time to grab their favourite frothie semi-skimmed latte with sprinkles on top before getting to work.
There are 3 conclusions of the boss’ feedback:
- We need be aware of – and careful – if we find ourselves in an extreme mood, either positive (e.g. excited, jokey, spontaneous) or negative (depressed, annoyed, fed up) as this will impact on our writing – quite possibly sending it away from the style we wanted. Yes, unless we are careful, what we are feeling like, have been watching or reading, whether or not we have plans for the evening/weekend, and our relationships, will all have an impact.
- So, before picking up our pen, we should ‘get into the mood’ we want to convey in our writing. For example, if you want to come across as business like ‘dress the part’ – don’t write when still in your pyjamas on a Sunday morning, lounging around on your settee. It won’t work.
- And finally, recognise that – because of the above – there may be times when we need to stop, adjust, and get into the right ‘zone’ before we pick up our pen … otherwise we’re signing up for an awful lot of unnecessary time later, editing.
Tone of Voice – Components
All of which is important for anyone wanting to effect the right tone of voice.
Wake up, readers, if you ever have to write any of the following: a persuasive proposal, the minutes of a legal or important meeting, some marketing text (print or digital), finely-balanced notes e.g. for a staff appraisal, etc.
The other, more obvious, ingredients to your writing’s tone of voice are these 3 things:
- What you say – the content.
- How you word it – your vocabulary.
- And how you say it – the grammar.
Let’s look at an example …
Suppose you write a blog about how you, unexpectedly, won a half-marathon last weekend. Well, that will be pretty inspiring to many people – especially if it was during bad weather and you won against all odds.
But if you litter it with some inspiring words – struggled, overcame, fought, won – it will be even more inspiring to your readers.
And you can affect the tone one step further with your grammar, by which I include the following:
- Sentence length – long sentences tend to sound more formal that short ones, which keep your voice more casual. The latter are also easier to read, and a great place to put key points you want to stress. Like this.
- Active or passive sentences – the latter make sentences longer (see above), as well as being not the natural way most people speak.
- Use of pronouns – using we, you and I, etc., will make your writing more engaging to the reader compared to referring to Mr X, Andrew (or avoiding using people’s names completely).
- Contractions – we’re (instead of we are), can’t (instead of cannot/can not), etc. Again, the former ones will give your writing a softer tone.
- Punctuation – semi-colons are not your everyday punctuation, as well as resulting in longer sentences.
Moral of this story .. for your tone of voice?
Say ‘No’ to jumping out of bed ‘on the wrong side’.
For help with tone tone of voice, how to write persuasively, and other help, contact PerfectText.
Is your email inbox overloaded – or do you spend too much time on your emails? READ my 6Ps for making your emailing day a lot lot easier.
1) Use the 3-Part structure to save time on emails
Many people get 30+ emails every day – their inbox is overloaded. And dealing with so many emails is time consuming and not easy.
If an email arrives that is long, unattractive (bad layout) or complicated to interpet, the receiver will quite likely – and quite reasonably – leave dealing with the email until later.
And who would blame them?
Whereas, if your email is well structured – so the receiver can speedily digest your content – it will be answered and actioned much more quickly.
Just what you want.
To help your emails get attention, use this effective 3-part structure:
First, give some brief context to the email – e.g. I am following up our meeting on Monday.
Then go into the details. Keep related information together, separate the details using paragraphs, and use sub-headings or numbers if appropriate.
End with the Action you want from the receiver – Can you get back to me before Monday?
Take advantage of the fact that readers’ attention is greatest when they first open your email and read your opening paragraph.
Capitalise on this by drawing readers’ attention to any important points in your email, eg. Sorry this email is a little long … This is really important … Please read the email carefully, etc.
I have pooled together my training experience and tips from my book on Business Writing Tips into 20+ Expert Briefs on Writing. Here is a list of the topics covered. Contact me for copies of any of the briefs.
INGREDIENTS TO GOOD WRITING
- Effective writing is as simple as ABC
- Does writing eat up your time? The 5-stage POWER model is your answer
- Find writing frustrating? Use these 4 Ps to make it considerably easier
- ‘Less is more’: 10 Things to delete from sentences, and benefit from
- How good is your writing? Find out in this quick and revealing test
- Use the right words in your relationship
- A writer’s Duty of Care.
HANDY WRITING TECHNIQUES
- Learn from writing’s pros: 12 indispensable techniques used by the maestros
- Write like a real master with these 5 artist’s principles
- 8 Essentials for good copywriting: The HOGWARTS school of wordcraft
- 10 Reasons to use a copywriter
- 3 Great writing techniques – Now you can write with speed, structure and style
- The secret answer to being a good writer – Wear these 4 different hats.
BUSINESS & REPORT WRITING
- The 6 ‘false starts’ made in businesses writing. Don’t be BOSSIE!
- Write that winning report: 12 ways to getting more attention, impact and influence
- Be a ‘BALD OAF’ for a day – 7 Persuasive and influential tricks for your writing.
EMAIL & WEBSITES
- Quick wins for your websites: The 5 Ss that win more readers’ attention
- PESTs to watch out for when emailing – Don’t slip on these 4 traps
- Email pressure? 6 Ps to make your day a lot easier.
- The 7 essentials for easy and effective minute taking
EDITING & PROOFREADING
- Grammar – The lessons from school that you can safely ignore
- How to transform a draft document. These 5 As will power-up your editing
- Punctuation made simple
- 3 ways to prevent proofreading slip-ups
CONTACT me if you would like any of these briefs.
‘Kill business speak, ‘Ditch the jargon’ is one of the three conclusions of Everyone’s Business (CBI), a new piece of research by the Confederation of British Industry into what people think about business.
Or, in the more emphatic words of PRWeek magazine, business should ‘Divest the crap’.
The conclusion is based on research that also found:
- A lack of trust between businesses and people – between what they do and what people believe of them (what the survey called a ‘real disconnect’).
- Public trust in businesses and whether they contribute to society is higher when they know the sector better. (Less than 20% said they had a good relationship with sectors such as: construction, manufacturing, utilities, IT, and professional and public services.)
- Leaders of large businesses are considered to be ‘far removed’ from the world of ordinary people (>70%) – but small businesses have a better reputation.
- Customers aren’t treated as individuals often enough by businesses – many focussing on the narrower objectives of customer service and value.
- Better communications would improve relations with the public, using ‘accessible, human language’ – and not done by CEOs.
The CBI is calling on firms to ditch business speak, communicate a clear purpose and remember their human side, with a clear focus on employees.
The study’s two other conclusions for businesses are:
- ‘Think local, act local’ – address what matters to people in their local communities.
- ‘External relationships’ – a better relationship with society will drive prosperity, in which the media and the government have a role to play.
Beginning in 2018, the CBI is now starting to run some regional events to spread its campaign to its members and beyond.
CONTACT me if you would like help Killing your Jargon
There is a saying that ‘you can’t start marketing your book too early’, so let’s begin with some things to do before your book is published.
- Build a database/email marketing list, including family, friends, etc. Badger those that are willing/knowledgeable to write reviews on Amazon etc.
- Prepare a ‘factsheet’ with a high-impact graphic, which contains a summary of the content, your bio, how people can purchase, price and ISBN, etc.
- Get your key messages right (find the value to customers)
- Make sure you sell the benefits of your book, not the features – readers want a problem solved, their objective achieved, etc. How will your book help them?
- Position your expertise – be credible and specialise. What is your USP?
- Write a press release and get in touch with local media – they will want to know ‘your story’, more than about the book!
- There are media opportunities before you publish, when you publish, and after you have published.
- Look for speaking opportunities – groups plan their speakers 6+ months in advance (quite a lot of evidence that the conversion rate, ie books sold, can be high on these occasions)
- Look for opportunities in local newspapers … but also professional, business and community magazines etc (somewhat hard to do in Oxford, where there is nothing new to being a writer). Offer to write something for them, mentioning your book.
- Prepare your administration: dispatch notice, invoice, envelopes, stamps, etc.
- Contact independent bookshops and local libraries. Ask to stock, offer to do talks, etc.
- Also try writing groups, clubs and associations, specialist websites, etc.
- Plan your book launch – invite the right people as well as friends
ON PUBLICATION and POST PUBLICATION
As above, plus…
- Hold a book launch (partly just to celebrate the occasion, but also to invite people you’d like to influence).
- Advertise selectively
- Exploit free publicity
- Use networking opportunities: business, sport, community, school, employer, etc. Look for customers buying for themselves, and those buying as a gift for their family and friends.
- Share your expertise through speaking engagements
- Publish articles, mentioning your book
- Have a stall at relevant exhibitions
- Offer copies as prizes for raffles, to community events (gets you free publicity) etc.
- What about having a website?
- Use social media
- What about a blog – virtual tours, interviews, reviews, feedback, etc.
AS SALES PROCEED …
- Measure what works
- Do more of what works – Tweak as needed – Stop doing what doesn’t work
- Promote any successes that you have, recording testimonials eg on your website or on a sales flyer, etc.
- Ask new customers where they heard about your book / Understand why people buy
- Make a connection with customers
- Learn to love selling!
I was interviewed by Human Communications, for my suggested tips for better business writing – and about the origins and golden nuggets in my book, Business Writing Tips. Here is the interview in full:
First of all, why do you think some people worry when it comes to business writing?
I think some people may have worries about breaking ‘rules’ that they think they learned at school. For example, the question I’m most commonly asked is, “Can I start a sentence with ‘and’?” (In my view you definitely can.) Lots of people have hang-ups about things like that, and – I know from what they tell me – a lot of time is wasted in offices debating and arguing about those sort of unimportant things.
Secondly, I think a lot of businesses write to impress, which isn’t necessarily a good objective or starting point. People love to highlight when their business was formed, for example. But most customers/readers aren’t really interested in that; they just want to know if the business can solve their problem .
Finally, people forget that in the business world readers don’t have to read anything. There’s a lot of competition on the web, for one thing: we’re in ‘the attention age’. People don’t realise that, if you want someone to read your text, you have got to keep the reader interested. But achieving that in writing is hard. Plus, there’s a lot of bad writing around, and I’m afraid we all absorb bad practices.
I wrote elsewhere about the challenges of writing emails … Leading on from that, here are my emailing tips for getting your email RIGHT- avoiding mistakes, keeping the right side of colleagues, and getting your email acted upon fast.
It all comes down to these email tips, or what I call ‘The 5 P’s’.
Tip No. 1 – The email’s Purpose
Before you start writing your email, think what you want to achieve from the email. Think about the outcome, rather than just what you want to communicate, as the former may well require a more subtle or fuller approach than the latter. My first email tip.
Email tip No. 2 – Use the Phone
Another email tip before you start writing … Think whether phoning might in this instance be a better option, eg if the subject is complicated, sensitive, or requires some two-way discussion – all of which would take far longer and be less effective if conducted through a series of emails.
Email tip 3 – Three Parts
So, now you can start writing the email. In my opinion, a three-part structure to emails is the most efficient format for enabling people to quickly digest what it is you are emailing about – and to help them act upon whatever it is that you want them to do. After all, if your email looks unappealing, and reads badly, they will ignore it for later on.
First, tell them the Context of your email (eg I am following up our phone call of yesterday). Then give all the detailed Information that you need to convey, which may well be 1-3 paragraphs or bullet points. And finally, at the end, which they are likely to scroll down to when they open your email, spell out what Action you want them to do, and by when (eg Can you get back to me this week?)
You can also use the first section, where the reader’s attention is at its greatest, to draw attention to things such as these: Sorry this email is long … This email is really important … Please note the 4 things I need from you.
Email tip 4 – Pause!
Tempting though it may be, don’t send your email immediately after you have finished writing it – especially if it is long, has tricky content, or is important or likely to be contentious, etc. In these cases it will almost certainly benefit from a re-read. Nobody gets these kinds of wriitng right first time. So, my email tip is to leave it a while, send it to yourself, share it with a colleague, etc. … do anything to give yourself some critical feedback on its structure, content, and writing style/tone.
Final email tip – Polish & Proofread
And finally, as with any piece of writing, don’t forget the importance of proofreading, which is more detailed editing than above. If it is long email, print it out. Why? It is far easier to check printed content that what we see on screen – and we give it far more attention. Check for typos etc. before sending … before you are embarrassed or annoyed with yourself, and before you accidentally send an email that you later regret.
There you have it – 5 email tips – The 5 P’s of emailing.
I have already written one blog about techniques for Writing for the Web, and in particular about writing text for your home page (READ it here). That blog had 3 main points, among them have a Strap line (on your home page) and make your Stories count. (The other point was don’t dilute your key/main message.)
The ‘S theme’ of Web Writing Secrets continues here, with a few more important Ss for you to adopt/embrace on your website:
1.) Web writing secret No. 1 = Scannability
Readers on the web are in a rush. It is no secret. Indeed, it is rare that they read more than 20-30% of your text. So, make it really easy for them to Scan, i.e. to pass through and get the gist of your webpage in a flash.
You can do this by using short paragraphs, and a very simple layout (ie. don’t let designers have too much influence). My tip is to write as though you were writing a news story, with several of the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why – and how) of what you writing about answered for the reader in your opening paragraph, so that they know immediately what your blog is about, and whether you have whatever it is they are looking for.
2.) Secret No. 2 = Slow readers down
Linked to the above, try and do things with your text that slow your readers down. One secret writing technique that achieves this quite well is using questions. It is strange, but somehow questions engage the reader. And they are a great web writing secret. They force the reader to pause and think: ‘Hum, what is my answer to that?’
Something else that helps is using bullet points – indeed, they work so well that it is as though they were invented for web writing, after the web came into existence. Another tip is to have headings and subheadings that are eye-catching. Not cryptic ones as newspapers sometimes used to – as people wouldn’t understand these, when speeding over your text – but headlines that catch their eye as they scan over the page, getting them to pause.
And if readers pause, they are more likely to read on…
3.) Another writing secret, ‘Short and snappy headings’
Avoid long ones, that can’t be scanned. Ideally, use short and snappy ones, with a strong verb, that will shine out for the reader. That is my web writing secret. The subheadings on my Copywriting page, for example, are things such as: Why use a freelancer – … and why use me? – My repertoire and experience – Improve your website content/SEO – Need help with a blog?
4.) Secret No. 4 = Does it pass the ‘So what?’ test
Does your content pass question, which is this commonly used among journalists? What does it mean? Well, it is easy to get excited when you first think of something to write about. But pause. Better still, wait until the next day. Or think what a friend would say, or how you would respond when said ‘So what?’ ie why is this interesting to readers? Make sure your content can answer this.
5.) Final Web writing secret – Straplines
And finally, yes, this one is a reminder from my other blog. Many companies have ‘strap lines’, mission statements, etc. but go into their offices and the chances are you will not see them. They are like a hidden secret. Why keep them secret? However, they can fit nicely on the top-left of your home page, where they are prominent and widely seen, as well as neatly summarising what you stand for.
Yes, in my view straplines are underused web writing secret, but can have big impact on a website home page.
There are three players in a piece of writing – the writer, the topic and the reader (as in the triangle above). Two of these dominate in any piece of writing, and which two should influence the types of words used. Why? Because usage of certain words can enable you the writer to influence your reader – what they know about and think of the topic, their views of you the writer, and the relationship between the two of you.
From writer to topic
Let’s start with what you wrote when you were young, i.e. essays, exam questions and longer reports/dissertations. Here, we, the writer, wrote about topics – as represented along the bottom of the triangle above.
In this kind of writing the writer should choose words for their ability to show what he/she knows about a topic. The words used can affect (a) what the reader thinks of the topic (e.g. Malnutrition is a major issue in most of Africa) and (b) what the reader thinks of the writer (e.g. I find economics agonizingly dull).
This is called the referential mode of writing.
From writer to reader
The second type of writing is from writer to reader, as for example in a job application’s covering letter, or a proposal document. This is called the interpersonal mode, on the left of the triangle.
In this writing the writer should use words (a) that can draw readers in (e.g. using pronouns – we, our, us etc.); (b) to create a favourable impression with the reader (e.g. it seems to me); and (c) with an eye on what the reader may or does not know, how they may differ from the writer, and how formal the writer wants to be (I think, I am told).
From topic to reader
And finally there is writing from topic to reader, as in advertisements or election material (the directive mode, on the right of the triangle).
Here the writer should select words (a) that help the reader understand the topic (e.g. ‘signposts’ such as on the other hand, even so, however) and (b) that inject feelings about the topic and that will influence the reader (The ideal getaway destination).
Conclusions for your writing
1.) Think what side of the triangle is your writing and home in on its players and requirements.
2.) Choose your words and phrases carefully….
On the one hand they can have a positive impact, helping you achieve the goals of your writing – be it explaining something, installing a view of something, building a relationship with the reader, or creating positive impressions of you.
But they can also be negative. They may be of an inappropriate tone, or lead the reader to form a negative (or insufficiently positive) impression of you the writer, and of what you are writing about.
I did a couple of courses on writing recently, which may sound rather strange and unnecessary for me, as a writer – but they were from a linguistics perspective (given by Dr Michael Kranert).
Here are a few things I found interesting:
Men and women … they use language differently
Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus. Maybe, or maybe not … but the book points out they use language differently:
- Clearly, language and communities matter more to women, who are more verbally skilled than men. Men’s goal in using language tends be to instrumental (getting things done) whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational (about making connections to other people).
- Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s is cooperative, reflecting their preference from equality and harmony.
- These differences routinely lead to miscommunication between the sexes, with each misinterpreting the others’ intentions.
We acquire and adjust our language
People acquire and adjust their communication skills (and vocabulary) in order to match in with the people around them, what are called ‘communities of practice’. Although the research applied to nurses and office trainees, it matches my view that I acquired a particular writing style when working in local government – and then had to shrug it off when I became a journalist.
Children in particular are aware of variations in language, and speak differently in order to ‘fit in’ (how they talk in the playground, versus how they talk to adults).
In the same way that headlines are used to engage with an audience, we use the weather as way to break the ice with people that we meet – not really to talk about the weather at all!
The history of legal writing – ‘Don’t blame the lawyers’
According to the author David Crystal (Investigating English Style), the language of law: ‘is perhaps the least communicative, in that it is designed not so much to enlighten language-users at large as to allow one expert to register information for scrutiny by another’.
One feature that makes legal language more complicated is its pairing or words (e.g. breaking and entering… null and avoid, etc.), which results in longer sentences and potential confusion. This practice dates from the days when English stood alongside French or Latin here in the UK, and therefore the word for both languages had to be used in legal texts.
And finally, ‘right justified’ text was introduced in legal texts to prevent people from inserting words … and changing the meaning.