It was UCLA academic Albert Mehrabian who taught us that good communication is made up of three parts:
- Body language; and
- Tone of voice
I lead learning groups in both presentation skills and autism support. Within these sessions, we spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we may need to tailor our communication if the receiver has a barrier to their understanding – as in the case of an autistic person. Or, if we ourselves are a little unsure about the communication – as with someone who is new to public speaking or writing for an audience.
Most of us are familiar with the concept that how we say something is as important – if not more so – than what we actually say.
“Timbre” refers to the quality of the sound we make. If we’re describing a person’s voice as: harsh, soft, rough, silky, breathy, raspy. Each of those adjectives could refer to the timbre. The timbre of the Glasgow accent is very different from the timbre of the Birmingham accent. And the timbre often conveys a particular tone, which is where it really get interesting.
Tone refers to the character of the voice. The tone you use is the impression you wish to convey with your speech: brisk, businesslike, authoritative, vulnerable, or friendly. Each of these words may describe the tone of a person’s written or spoken communication.
Tone isn’t just restricted to the spoken word. Your written communication has a tone, as does the overall feel and message of the thing you wish to communicate.
Even a brand can have a tone.
I worked for advertising giant, McCann, back in the 1990s. At this time one of the agency’s clients was Coca-Cola, and I recall hours being spent crafting the unique tone of the brand’s messaging. Spend a moment thinking about Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans, e.g. ‘have a Coke and a smile’, or ‘you can’t beat the feeling’. These words all evoke feelings of happiness, friendship, sunshine, and so on. Even more so because within Coca-Cola’s advertising, the taste of the drink itself is very rarely mentioned. The tone and message is conveyed through facial expressions and smiles. Now this is no accident! Coca-Cola’s (and their advertisers’!) amazing success demonstrates just how powerful the tone we use in our communication is, and how words by themselves are just one part of this.
So how can we make sure that we get our own tone right, and convey the message we intend? I would start with:
- Being sincere.
- Being authentic.
- Being confident.
- I have put these three together as it’s hard to have one without the other two. If you are confident in the message you’re delivering, and you really believe it, you will usually come across as authentic and sincere. There is nothing wrong with being a little nervous when speaking (or writing!) for the first time, and being self-aware is no bad thing and won’t detract from clear sincerity. But trying to convince an audience of something that you yourself don’t really believe, rarely works. In public speaking your body language will tell a different story from the words you are using, and a fake or false tone is hard to maintain in regular written communication.
Then, we need to:
- Mind our language – don’t use discriminatory language (even in jest), mild profanity or blasphemy. You will offend people – trust me, you will! Humour is a very personal thing and it’s difficult to get the tone right with it. Even more so if the joke you are trying to make is about a potentially sensitive matter. I always think it’s best just to steer clear!
- Avoid jargon – most people hate it. In particular ‘management course speak’ .e.g. “Reaching out”, “touch base offline”, and so on.
- Finish with a sense-check. Do you really understand what you’re about to say, or what you have written? Really? Could you summarise it all in one or two sentences for a five year old child? To paraphrase Albert Einstein, there is nothing so complicated that even a small child cannot understand it if it’s explained properly.
If you can’t summarise your message in this way, then you may need to take another look at your work and refine it. Generally, the more complicated the message, the more likely that the tone you wish to convey will get lost beneath the ‘fluff’. The simpler you keep things, the easier it is to keep the tone you want.
And finally, let your own personality shine through. If you’re a friendly and informal type of person, then it’s going to be difficult to maintain a cool and ultra-distanced tone (remember what we said about being authentic?) It’s far easier and more natural to work with your own personality, and maintain professionalism by being respectful to your listener or reader and, as above, avoiding unnecessary jargon, slang, or potentially offensive language.
I hope this is helpful and I would love to hear any of your thoughts about how to keep the tone right in your spoken or written communication!