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Getting the tone right

"Bigger Than All of Us" at the Kennedy CenterEarlier this month I was watching actors rehearse my latest play. Well, not watching so much as listening. Carefully. I needed to make sure all my characters sounded believable. And different. Because while people who live or work together may mirror each others' speech to a certain extent, most of us speak in our own unique voices. It poses quite a challenge to the playwright to create well-rounded characters who use speech--vocabulary, sentence structure, rhythm, silence--in a variety of ways. So I have become a careful listener. And very adept at hearing the differences in tones of voice.

I am often asked by clients what "tone" is best to use in the workplace. Before offering an answer, I ask for more specifics. Usually, the questioner wants to know how to speak to a superior, like a boss or supervisor, or how to address someone who may have higher status in a given situation, like a potential client.

I advise them to shift their focus and set a higher goal: to develop good habits of professional communications. Period. Find your personal professional tone, one that you can use in all circumstances. After all, you meet the same people on your way up the ladder as you do on the way down. So it's good to get in the habit of speaking with what you might think of as "office courtesy." But it won't work if it comes across as an "act" or just another business strategy. It has to be genuine and all-inclusive.

It's not as hard as you might think to cultivate such a tone. Be respectful--listen to what others have to say, make sure you are communicating clearly, and take the time to clarify. Think of it as the office variant of The Golden Rule: speak the way you would like to be spoken to. This will help take drama out of the office and put it onstage where it belongs!


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