Chapter 3 Business Writing Trait 3: Voice

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Business Writing Trait 3: Voice

Voice may be hard to define, but it’s easy to recognize. “Don’t use that tone of voice” is often our response to a sarcastic, angry, or otherwise inappropriate tone. We may also respond negatively to an email with an unprofessional voice.

A professional voice, on the other hand, reflects well on the subject, audience, and writer and elicits a positive response from the reader. To achieve such a voice, use natural language and avoid negativity.

This chapter provides an overview of voice and then focuses on specific problems with voice and solutions for fixing the problems.

In this chapter

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Voice: An Overview

Human beings are hardwired to read facial expressions. Just by looking at people’s faces, we can tell who they are and what they are feeling. And it’s the same with people’s “voices.” Whether in speech or in writing, the voice is unique, revealing personality, intelligence, and self-image. Voice also reveals a wealth of information about each part of the communication situation, as shown in the following chart.

Voice in the Communication Situation

1. Sender:

Voice reveals personality and position, telling who the person is or thinks he or she is. Business-like voice is positive and professional.

2. Message:

Voice reveals how the person feels about the main point of the message. Business-like voice is confident and in control.

3. Medium:

Voice reveals the sender’s mastery and comfort level with the medium. Business-like voice is natural.

4. Receiver:

Voice reveals the sender’s relationship with the receiver, how close they are, and what roles they play. Business-like voice is constructive and courteous.

5. Context:

Voice reflects the history of the situation and the current climate. Business-like voice is engaged and practical.

Voice can be described using adjectives that distinguish personality—friendly, confident, humorous, clever, and so on.

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Three Levels of Formality

Like business attire, business voice comes in three levels of formality: formal, semiformal, and informal. Just as you would match clothing to an event—whether a formal meeting or an informal office picnic—you should match voice to the situation as well.

Formal

A formal voice is serious, dignified, deliberate, and objective. It avoids contractions and uses few if any personal pronouns.

Sender

  • Any employee

Message

  • Official business

  • Legal business

  • Bad news

Medium

  • Major document

  • Formal letter

  • Résumé

  • Report

  • Proposal

  • Instructions

  • Memo

Receiver

  • Superiors

  • Unfamiliar people outside company

Context

  • Serious situations

Semiformal

A semiformal voice is friendly, natural, personable, and conversational. It uses occasional contractions and some personal pronouns.

Sender

  • Any employee

Message

  • Everyday business

  • Good news

  • Persuasion

Medium

  • Minor document

  • Sales letter

  • Email

  • Blog post

  • Podcast

  • Meeting minutes

  • Forums

Receiver

  • Subordinates

  • Familiar people outside company

Context

  • Typical situations

Informal

An informal voice uses frequent contractions and personal pronouns and may contain humor or slang; avoid it in business writing.

Sender

  • Any employee

Message

  • Personal business

  • Planning

  • Thoughts

Medium

  • Unofficial document

  • Personal notes

  • List

  • Sketch

  • Text message

  • Social media

  • Messenger app

Receiver

  • Colleagues

  • Close contacts outside the company

Context

  • Social situations

What Is Writing Style?

Analyze the writing situation and see which voice best matches the message, medium, receiver, and context. Avoid using an informal voice in business writing.

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Voice: Problems and Solutions

An effective voice matches the communication situation and gets your point across. An inappropriate voice can get you fired. The following material will help you diagnose problems with voice and solve them.

Problem:

People say I come across as negative.

Listen for

“Why are you so annoyed?”

“How about some team spirit?”

“You’re making a bad situation worse.”

Look for

Youngstown Microchip used to know how to pack an order, but now you can’t get a single shipment out on time with the right stuff in it. Your warehouse supervisor, Nick Luther, ought to be fired, or maybe Rankin Technologies will fire your whole company. We don’t have to work with clowns who can’t even fill an order. You guys better make this right.

Solution:

Focus on the positive.

Focus on what can be done, not what can’t. Even in a bad situation, a voice that focuses on the positive rather than on the negative helps keep business moving forward.

Focus On

  • the subjectnot on the personalities. Avoid a judgmental tone.

  • solutionsnot on problems. Be the solution person, not the problem person.

  • the futurenot on the past. Use the past merely to provide a context for moving forward.

  • strengthsnot on weaknesses. Capitalize on the opportunity to bridge or address any weak spots.

  • cooperationnot on antagonism. Move beyond personal agendas and consider how you can help resolve the situation.

  • suggestionsnot on threats. Avoid threatening language, which hampers clear thinking. Suggestions cultivate new ideas.

  • positive wordsnot on negative words. Foster the “can do” attitude by marking successes and using encouraging words.

Positive Voice:

Rankin Technologies has always valued our partnership with Youngstown Microchip. Within the last six months, however, late shipments and incorrectly filled orders have impacted our working relationship. Rankin Technologies is reconsidering sourcing options and would appreciate an opportunity to discuss future shipments with the warehouse supervisor.

When the message includes bad news, avoid personal pronouns, especially you and your. They can create an accusatory tone. Notice how the use of you and your in the “Look for” example pits the writer against the reader.

Problem:

People say I sound arrogant.

Listen for

“You’re full of yourself.”

Look for

Forget those other carpet-cleaning services with their so-called experts and shoddy machines. We get every carpet clean.

Solution:

Tone down your message.

Do the following to create a reasonable voice:

  • Avoid praising yourself.

  • Avoid absolute claims.

  • Focus on facts.

  • Provide what the receiver needs.

  • Don’t tear others down.

Reasonable Voice:

Cooper’s Carpet Cleaners use continuous-flow extraction with power wands to guarantee the best results.

Problem:

People think I lack confidence.

Listen for

“You sound doubtful.”

Look for

You probably haven’t heard of Cooper’s Carpet Cleaners, but if you want to, maybe you could give us a try.

Solution:

Create confidence.

Do the following to sound confident:

  • Avoid an apologetic tone.

  • Focus on facts.

  • Avoid unnecessary qualifiers (maybe, probably).

  • Stand behind your statements and your work.

Confident Voice:

Cooper’s Carpet Cleaners may be new in town, but we’re determined to prove our value with clean carpets and friendly service.

Problem:

My voice sounds stiff.

Listen for

“It's like you're trying to sound important.”

Solution:

Use natural expressions.

Don't Say

Do Say

accordingly

so

according to our records

our records show

acquaint

tell

adhere

stick

afford an opportunity

allow/permit

along the lines of

like

applicable to

apply to

apprise

tell

are in receipt of

have received

are of the opinion that

think that

ascertain

learn/find out

as per

according to

as regards

regarding

awaiting your instructions

please let me know

call your attention to

please note

case in point

for example

ceased functioning

quit working

cognizant

aware

commence

begin

concur

agree

configuration

shape

disbursements

payments

do not hesitate to

please

due consideration

careful thought

endeavor

try

enumerate

list

evacuate

leave

expedite

speed up

fabricate

make

facilitate

make easier

finalize

finish/settle

fluctuate

vary

herein

in this

heretofore

until now

in accordance with

as

inasmuch as

as/because

increment

amount/step

indispensable

vital

in lieu of

instead of

in the amount of

for

kindly

please

manifest

show

manipulate

change/operate

modification

change

necessitate

require

on a daily basis

daily

paradigm shift

major change

parameter

limit

per se

as such

personnel reduction

layoffs

per your request

as requested

precipitate

cause

preliminary to

before

prioritize

rank

procure

buy/get

pursuant to

following up

quantify

measure/count

ramification

result

recapitulate

review

remuneration

pay

reproduction

copy

salient

important

strategize

plan/solve

subsequent

later/after

terminate

end

under separate cover

separately

utilize

use

vacillate

waver

visualize

picture

wherewithal

means

Problem:

People’s feelings get hurt when I offer criticism.

Listen for

“You think I’m stupid.”

Look for

Don’t you guys have any idea how to create a good carton? You sure don’t change the color scheme and hide the logo!

Solution:

Make your criticism constructive.

Focus on improving processes and building teams, not on derailing processes and tearing down teams.

  • Focus on issues, not personalities.

  • Expect improvement.

  • Create a team atmosphere.

  • Begin with the positive before you criticize.

Constructive Criticism:

The team’s carton design is eye catching, but the color scheme needs to match that of the competition and needs to more clearly include the logo.

Problem:

I’ve been told I’m too abrupt.

Listen for

“Don’t be rude.”

“You’re so insensitive.”

Look for

To Whom It May Concern:

Boniface specializes in waste removal and recycling. Our rates are available on our Web site. You need better garbage removal. From what I heard, the recycling guys are ripping you off.

Give me a call: 303-555-2356.

Solution:

Think of your audience and use courtesy.

Think first of the receiver. How will the person feel about your message? Encouraged? Discouraged? Helped? Threatened? Informed? Overwhelmed? Energized? Write with the receiver’s feelings in mind.

  • Use please and thank you.

  • Use we, us, and ours to include (not exclude) the audience.

  • Use appropriate courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., Dr.)

  • Treat names with respect and spell them properly.

  • Focus on the receiver’s needs.

Sensitive Voice:

Dear Ms. Grey:

Thank you for the chance to bid on Millwood Inc.’s waste removal and recycling needs. We are pleased to offer

  • one eight-cubic-yard container for regular refuse, serviced twice a week.

  • one eight-cubic-yard container for cardboard, serviced once a week.

  • one billing a month at $169.

We would like to add you to our list of satisfied customers. Please call me at 303-555-2356.

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Checklist Voice

Your goal is to use a voice that matches the communication situation: sender, message, medium, receiver, and context.

  1. Does the voice represent me well?

    • Professional and polished

    • Smart and committed

  2. Does the voice show my connection to the subject?

    • Knowledgeable and clear

    • Positive and serious

  3. Does the voice show my purpose?

    • Informative or persuasive

    • Engaging

  4. Does the voice show mastery of the medium?

    • Natural and easy

    • Effective and accomplished

  5. Does the voice connect with the reader?

    • Polite and friendly

    • Formal or semiformal

  6. Does the voice fit the context?

    • Routine or unique

    • Public or confidential

  7. Is the voice professional?

    • Positive

    • Confident

    • Constructive

    • Calm

“A loud voice cannot compete with a clear voice, even if it’s a whisper.”

—Barry Neil Kaufman

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