Achieving the right tone of voice can be difficult in face-to-face or written conversations. It’s even more tricky when using abbreviated forums, like Twitter or texting. How do you get your point across without being misinterpreted? How do you answer a question in brief and not seem abrupt or dismissive? When do you select another forum altogether, recognizing that a text or tweet really isn’t the place? Here are some basic tips:
- In short, positive and active word choice helps achieve a desirable tone. “Check out this new post” … “Look forward to seeing you for breakfast” … “Excited to hear about the new product” are all examples. Basic questions also lend themselves to these brief formats, such as “What time should we meet?” If you’re posing a question that includes “Why,” I’d recommend against a text. It can work on Twitter to incite a dialogue around a particular topic or gain learning, but generally will not work well via text because the response is likely to prompt an opinion, which can become more challenging to interpret in short form. “Why didn’t we see you at the offsite meeting?” is probably best answered face-to-face, by phone or possibly email if some additional detail is required beyond “was sick.”
- Continue to use manners, always. Many have told me they find this difficult, especially by text. I believe mannered conversation is always welcome. For instance, if you need to reply “no” to an invitation by text, use a simple, short “My schedule won’t work, I’m sorry”. Adding “Can we find another time?” shows your interest in continuing a conversation. “Please” and “thank you” work in any format and language.
- Sincerity wins. Be yourself. Be authentic. Stay true to your values. Challenge yourself to answer a question or start a dialogue in a way that holds true with how you’d have a face-to-face conversation. If it doesn’t “sound” right when you say the statement aloud, it probably won’t work well in writing. It’s that simple.
- Know how your words translate. This is a must in any forum given the global nature of communications today. It’s crucial to understand the full meaning of your word choice and how it does or doesn’t translate into other languages.
- Don’t misuse the forums that have rules for brevity by trying to address serious topics that require longer discussion. This is especially important for companies and brands, and customer apologies come to mind here. If you are in need of apologizing for something, do it sincerely and in brief with a simple, sincere “I’m sorry”. Last year, an Uber executive issued a Twitter apology following his suggestion to investigate the personal lives of the journalists who had written negatively about the company. His Twitter apology was criticized for its tone of voice, which didn’t seem sincere. If you’re going to use this forum, make sure your limited word choice sounds real.
- Generally don’t use humor unless it is truly expected and predictable as part of your personality. I’ll use an obvious example that has been widely reported in the PR world. During the revolution in Egypt, Kenneth Cole tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available …” People were outraged at the insensitivity of the tweet and obvious misuse of humor. He later apologized and removed the tweet, but there’s a lesson woven into this story (pun intended) to not try too hard with humor. Sincerity will generally trump humor in these brief forums and, in this case, there really wasn’t any reason for fashion to insert itself into a very serious issue
Finally, even if you have your tone of voice and word choice perfected, it’s important to know when not to engage. Many years ago, I was working in media relations for a large brand and saw an interview with broadcaster, Ted Koppel. He was talking about his experience conducting television interviews, and shared a view that he was surprised how many interviewees feel compelled to answer every question that is asked. He said, “Just because a question is asked, doesn’t mean you have to answer it.” The same holds true in the digital space, and it’s especially relevant in the very interruptive texting world. If a business colleague asks by text, “Why the budget cuts?” pick up the phone and have a conversation. Text is not the forum for that discussion. If someone shows up for a meeting early and texts, “I’m here, where are you?” there’s no need for a reply. Show up at the agreed time, and verbally recognize receiving the text during your other meeting, which sends the message that you aren’t available 24/7 to answer texts simply because you have the ability to receive them. Just because the question was asked, doesn’t mean you have to answer it.