Your tone says more than your words

Mr. T(one)

When we start working on our presentation skills, the first place we typically start is our content; spicing up slides, inserting some safe-for-work “jokes,” adding a GIF or 10… but, when we dig deeper into effective communication techniques, we often find that content is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it’s often not what we say, but how we say it that impacts whether our voices are heard.

“Tone” is why it’s so easy to misinterpret text messages, why two people can take very different meanings away from the same speech, and why sarcasm doesn’t translate the same way across languages. It’s also one of the hardest things to pin down in presenting.

What is “tone,” anyway?

Put simply, tone is the way you speak to people, or “how you sound when you say words out loud.” That encompasses things like speaking volume, speed, and inflection, but also specific word choice. In many cases, the denotation (dictionary definition) of a word is different from its connotation (emotional or indirect meaning).

Loaded words like “cancel,” are one example, but even synonyms for a common word like “explain” have vastly different connotations.

Try swapping the synonyms, “clarify,” “elucidate,” “decode,” “educate you on,” into the following sentence:

“Let me quickly __explain__ our marketing strategy.”

Though in theory, these words are interchangeable, we’re guessing your coworkers would have fairly different responses to each choice.

Audience and context are key

As you may have realized, the audience and context of your talk are huge factors in how your tone is perceived. The connotations of certain words may be different for different cultures, generations, or genders.

The same line may even land differently depending on how “warm” or “cool” your audience is (case in point: the unsettling experience of watching a sitcom without a laugh track). Before tailoring your talk, take a minute to think about who you’ll be speaking to and what your objective is (more on that next week!)

“How do I know how I sound?”

The easiest way to know how you sound is to say your words out loud. Take 30 seconds to read an email to yourself before sending or run through the first slide of your presentation — not just in your head — but out loud. You’ll likely catch everything from typos to repetitive phrasing more quickly than just reading through it.

Need to nail a specific tone for branded communications or ghostwriting? Work with your colleagues to pare down your message to 3–5 agreed-upon tone words (here are 155 tone words to get you started).

And if all of this guidance seems a little overwhelming? Stick to the basics: when it comes to tone, the most important thing is to sound like yourself.

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