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Understanding Tone: How to Hit the Right Notes in Your Writing

by Rolling Stone Culture Council / Branding and Publishing
This is one of a series of posts on how Rolling Stone Culture Council members can get the most from their publishing benefits. If you're not yet a member, find out if you're eligible.

Everyone has a unique writing voice. But voice and tone are two distinct concepts, and both matter greatly when you're writing for an audience of potential customers, colleagues, investors, or partners.

Your voice is what makes your writing uniquely yours. It’s about your personality and style. Voice is often reflected in your diction, your expressions and idioms, even your sense of humor (or lack thereof).

But your tone is something you can modulate article by article. When your tone "sounds off" — perhaps you come across as angry, conceited or sarcastic — it can make readers wary, regardless of voice or content. And that's a risk you don't want to take.

If you’re struggling with getting your tone right for a business audience, these six rules will help.

Avoid inappropriate language and expressions.

Off-color language can sometimes seem like part of our voice. It can even be humorous. But more often than not, unless you’re a public figure, inappropriate language just strikes an immature note — and has the unintended effect of making the reader focus on your word choice instead of your ideas.

When it comes to punctuation and formatting, less is more.

Things like exclamation points, all caps and bolding for no reason affect tone as well as readability! They take even perfectly clear sentences and make them sound JUVENILE or hysterical!

So use unusual punctuation or formatting lightly, if at all. Flourishes like emojis or caps might make sense in direct marketing copy, but in an article, they are best left out. Trust that your reader is smart enough to understand your meaning.

Negativity alienates your readers.

When you’re overly critical or negative, the person on the receiving end tends to tune you out. But what constitutes a “negative” tone? How do you separate negative from, say, identifying a genuine problem?

At the end of the day, tone is all about how you make your reader feel. It's the atmosphere you're creating. So if you’re angry or sarcastic, for example, they may feel patronized. Here’s a hypothetical example from an article about content marketing strategy:

  • I know you don’t want to roll up your sleeves and dig in because you’re “super busy,” but the job of companies like mine isn’t to help your business figure out its ENTIRE content marketing strategy. That starts with you. If you can’t answer, “why content?” before we meet, we shouldn’t meet at all, frankly.

The author is addressing professionals who want a content marketing plan — in other words, potential customers. The advice that follows this statement may be sound, but the sarcasm implied by the quotes around “super busy” and the the all-caps “ENTIRE” create a negative tone.

What a difference a few subtle changes make:

  • Most companies are simply too busy to roll up their sleeves and dig in. I get it. But unfortunately, no agency can tell you why you need content in the first place or what the overall goal of it is. Instead, try starting with one simple question: “Why content?”

The writer’s voice is intact (phrases like “roll up your sleeves” are colloquial and direct, as is “I get it”), but the patronizing tone is gone. Now, I’m eager to keep reading.

Beware the overly personal.

Writing about a personal event often stirs up strong emotions, and it’s easy to let those color our thinking and therefore our words.

Steer clear of open criticism or emotionally charged personal information, especially about colleagues and competitors, and pick your anecdotes based on their informational value.

Show, don’t sell.

Recommending your own products or services, writing content that exists purely to explain why your company is the best solution to X problem, and dropping client names and links — you already know these tactics don’t work in expert content.

But while our editors will help you strip out any obviously promotional material, your tone can still feel “salesy.” It’s easy to fix, though, often just by writing more authentically — as if you were talking to a colleague. Compare these two lines:

  • As the CEO of one of the world’s most successful printing companies and the winner of many awards for our advertising, I know a thing or two about improving your B2B marketing strategy.
  • After working with hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons about B2B marketing.

The second version creates credibility and trust. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Write like you talk (not like a dictionary).

Most writers think more complex language makes us sound smarter, but mostly it just makes us sound stuffy and causes readers to feel disengaged. If you’re struggling to get your ideas across simply, try this: Write like you talk, and clean up from there. Harness that natural voice!

I think this is a good list to help you train your ear to spot tone problems earlier. Reviewing tone is a great final step in your editing process — but remember, our team is here to help with that too.

Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for innovators and tastemakers on the cutting edge of what’s new in culture. Learn more.