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:

Solution:

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.”

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.

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.

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.

People say I sound arrogant.

Listen for

  • “You’re full of yourself.”

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.

Look for

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

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

People think I lack confidence.

Listen for

  • “You sound doubtful.”

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.

Look for

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

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.

I sound overly emotional.

Listen for

  • “Calm down.”

Focus on business, not on feelings.

Control your emotions, especially in challenging situations. Becoming emotional only decreases your power rather than increasing it.

Look for

  • I said no more two-hour meetings! That costs a fortune! Stick to the agenda, and if you don’t have one, MAKE ONE!

Controlled Emotion: In order to keep meetings short and productive, the chair must have a prepared agenda. Please provide the agenda prior to the meeting.

My voice sounds stiff.

Listen for

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

  • 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

    People’s feelings get hurt when I offer criticism.

    Listen for

    • “You think I’m stupid.”

    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.

    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!

    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.

    I’ve been told I’m too abrupt.

    Listen for

    • “Don’t be rude.”

    • “You’re so insensitive.”

    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.

    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.

    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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