Style: Formality, Tone & Voice, Word Choice

Style Definition

Style is what sets a communicator apart. Style is the way you dress writing up or down to fit the specific context, purpose, content, and audience. Your level of formality, tone and voice, and word choice all contribute to your style in a communication. How you choose words and structure sentences to achieve a certain effect creates a certain style in the writing. For example, compare the following two sentences in terms of style:


It has been concluded, then, from individual and collective consultation with all departments, that XYZ corporation would benefit from outsourcing staff training in communications.

All departments agree that outsourcing staff training in communications is cost- and time-effective.

The first example is both more formal and impersonal in style (e.g. you don’t exactly know who came to this conclusion).  It’s also lengthier and less specific than the second example, since specific benefits are not mentioned.  It might be appropriate if the writer does not want to specify those benefits for some reason, and/or does not want to assign responsibility to specific persons or groups making the recommendation. The second example is more specific, personal, and direct. It might be appropriate if the writer wants to identify particular benefits and responsibility.

If you don’t know what particular style to use, then realize that the first example is not generally the preferred style. Always err on the side of the second example’s style for most business communications: simple, specific, direct, and active.

Elements of Style in Business Communications

Formal / Informal Styles

Note the level of formality of your words.  The first example above is more formal, using “concluded” and “consultation” instead of just saying “agreed.”  Most business communications in the U.S. use a relatively informal style.  This does not mean that you can use slang or embellishments, or write as you would speak to a friend.  Informal professional style does mean that you use clear language precisely, without extra words or embellishments, to offer your point directly.

There was a time when many business documents were written in third person to give them the impression of objectivity. This formal style was often passive and wordy. Today it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “Plain English” (Bailey, 2008). As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient, relatively informal professional writing styles have become the norm.

To determine if you have a successful style, ask the question: is it professional? If a document is too emphatic, it may seem like an attempt at manipulation. If it uses too much jargon or technical language, it may be appropriate for people with technical expertise but may limit access to the information by a nontechnical audience. If the document appears too simplistic, it may seem to be “talking down” to the audience, assuming that your audience has very limited professional knowledge and/or capacity for that knowledge. Does your document represent you and your organization in a professional manner? Will you be proud of the work a year from now? Does it accomplish its mission and stated objectives, and does it fulfill the audience’s needs and expectations? Business writing is not expository, wordy, or decorative, and the presence of these traits may obscure meaning. Business writing is professional, respectful, and clear, communicating a message with precision.

Tone & Voice

Tone deals with your overall attitude toward the information you’re communicating.  For most business communications, strive for a professional, engaged, serious tone.  Note that serious does not mean ponderous – it simply means that you should use neutral language that’s clear and direct.  Purdue University has an informative handout on Tone in Business Writing, which includes explanations and examples.

Try It

Consider the following lines from business emails. How would you describe the tone of each entry? What words, phrases, or other elements suggest that tone?

  • “Maybe if the project leader had set a reasonable schedule from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
  • “Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough. Thanks for working so hard on this.”
  • “I’m not sure what else is on your plate right now, but I need these numbers by this afternoon—actually in the next two hours.”
  • “I cant remember when u said this was due.”
  • “While I appreciate that your team is being pulled in a number of different directions right now, this project is my department’s main priority for the semester. What can we do from our end to set your group up to complete this by June?

Whether in a workplace or in our personal lives, most of us have received emails that we’ve found off-putting, inappropriate, or, at a minimum, curt. Striking the right tone and being diplomatic, particularly in business communication, can mean the difference between offending your reader and building important professional relationships. And more immediately, it can mean the difference between getting what you want and being ignored.

As with any piece of writing, considering audience, purpose, and type of information is key to constructing business communication. Truly finessing your writing so that it works for you, rather than against you, is key to forming strong professional relationships and being effective in your own position.

Attribution: The above material is taken from Diplomacy, Tone, and Emphasis in Business Writing in the Writing Commons and is used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported license.

Voice reveals your personality. Your voice can be impersonal or personal, authoritative or reflective, objective or passionate, serious or funny.  As you consider style when you revise, identify an adjective that you think best describes your voice, and ask yourself if this is appropriate for your writing context, purpose, and audience.

Although the following video is relatively lengthy, it offers excellent information and examples on aspects of tone and voice:

  • formality
  • reader orientation
  • directness
  • presupposition

Word Choice

Word choice also helps to create style. Most communicators strive to be concise. precise, and plain, weeding out unnecessary and overly-embellished words and choosing the exact words to convey meaning. Precise words—active verbs, concrete nouns, specific adjectives—help your readers understand your sentences. No matter what style is appropriate, formal or informal, serious or humorous, clarity, precision, and plainness are goals to strive for in terms of style for professional communications, especially in Western cultures.


Try It

Which statement is easier to understand?

  • Your order has been received and will be shipped shortly.
  • Your order, number 1234, was received August 1 and ships on August 5. You should receive it by August 8.

Which statement is easier to understand?

  • I have the skill to greet many customers while attending to a multi-line phone.
  • I greet on average 25 customers an hour, while managing incoming phone lines for six district managers.

Which statement is easier to understand?

  • The contractor’s pay is equal to the time and materials used.
  • Remuneration the contractor receives is commensurate with the time and materials used.

Which statement is easier to understand?

  • When communicating to an audience in-person, it is important to project your voice into the back corners of the room.
  • Speak loudly when presenting so the people in the back row can hear you.

 When you consider word choice, ask yourself if your words convey your main ideas clearly, and if you are you using language that can be understood by your reading audience (most likely an adult, general audience, such as people who read blogs and newspapers).  Word selection and phrasing leads to successfully transferring meaning from the sender to the receiver. Doing this well enhances your reputation as a communicator.

The following video explains why it’s wise to use plain English.

How can you consider style consciously?

One method is to read your communication out loud, preferably to another person. Better yet, have another person read your draft to you. Note how that person interprets your words. Do they come across as you originally meant them to? If not, revise.

Another method is to simply ignore your draft communication for a few days, and then read it carefully as though you were reading another professional’s work for the first time.  Planning some time between drafting and revising helps with all stages of the revising process, including style.

The following video offers a variety of style tips.