Voice may seem like an ethereal concept, but we all know an inappropriate voice when we hear it: “Don’t use that tone of voice with me!”
A disrespectful voice disconnects people, but a respectful voice connects them.
As social beings, we read people’s voices the same way we read their faces—listening past the words to the many other things that voice reveals.
What does voice reveal?
Voice shows the speaker’s relationship to each part of the communication situation:
- Sender: Voice reveals the speaker’s identity, personality, and role. It can be professorial, jolly, staid, outgoing, authoritative. . . .
Good afternoon, sir. Do you know why I stopped you?
- Message: Voice shows what the person feels about the topic, and why the person is addressing it. It can be hopeful, guarded, annoyed, persuasive,
firm. . . .
Yes, well, you can be ticketed for even one mile above the speed limit, and you were doing ten over.
- Medium: Voice shows the person’s comfort level with the medium of communication. It can be confident, slick, uncertain, confused, adept. . . .
I’m going to run your license and registration. Just sit tight.
- Receiver: Voice tells the way that the person connects to the audience. It can be collegial, welcoming, condescending, formal. . . .
Your record comes up clean, just as you indicated it would. You still need to abide by posted speed limits.
- Context: Voice reveals what the person feels about the larger situation. It can be relaxed, harried, bold, whiny, measured. . . .
Given your clean record, I’ll let you off with a warning. To keep your record clear, you need to watch your speed.
From these examples, you no doubt imagined a cop performing a routine traffic stop with a speeding motorist. The funny thing is, the words themselves did not overtly convey those details. You read beyond the words and cued in to the voice.
What makes up voice?
Voice comes from a variety of factors:
- What you focus on: Your main points communicate what you value.
I hope Screaming Eagle is fast! How high is the first drop? How many loop-de-loops does it have?
Is this rollercoaster safe? I mean, how often is it inspected? Any accidents?
- Why you communicate: Your voice tells what you are trying to accomplish.
Screaming Eagle is inspected by park engineers every morning and by regulators every month.
I’m not trusting my one-and-only life to amusement-park engineers.
- How formal you are: Stuffy, formal, informal, slangy—voice tells how you position yourself in the situation.
When it debuted ten years ago, Screaming Eagle broke all rollercoaster records for drops, speed, and G-force.
Whoa, that was sick! On that first drop, I was liketa meet my Lord!
- What words you use: Individual word choice powerfully affects voice.
Hardly worth the hype, I’d say. It should be called the Screaming Ego.
Not worth the wait, dude. It should be called the Sleepy Eagle.
What writing voice is best for business?
Use a voice that fits your writing situation.
Represent yourself well: Sound confident and capable, with a positive attitude.
Connect to your reader: Let your voice reflect your relationship.
- Write “up” to supervisors using a respectful tone that is formal or semiformal and carefully edited, as if you were in a job interview.
- Write “across” to colleagues using a friendly tone that matches your closeness to the person and promotes teamwork.
- Write “down” to staff using a polite and welcoming tone that is serious but encouraging, clearly laying out details.
- Write “out” to clients using a professional and polite tone that connects to clients’ concerns and interests, facilitating communication.
Match your topic and purpose: A serious topic requires a sober tone, while a sales pitch requires enthusiasm. Imagine enthusiasm with a serious topic, or a sober tone with a sales pitch. You should pivot with your topic and purpose. Think of how news anchors shift their voice and facial expressions from grim (reporting on a freeway pile-up) to gleeful (reporting on cream puffs at the state fair).
What about voice in emails?
Emails are notoriously bad at conveying tone. Readers of emails tend to interpret tone one degree more negatively than the writer intended:
- A positive tone sounds neutral.
- A neutral tone sounds negative.
- A negative tone sounds hostile.
This is why emojis came into being, so people could tell we were laughing rather than fuming when we wrote something.
So try to raise your positivity by one level when writing an email: Be positive when you feel neutral. Be neutral when you feel negative. And don’t write hostile emails, which sound unhinged. Strong negative emotion is better conveyed in a different medium.