Tone refers to the overall manner of expression, comprising messaging, voice, tense, and diction.
Diction, or word choice
Prefer modern usage and spelling. As language evolves over time, words concatenate. “Electronic mail” became “e-mail”, and “e-mail” became “email”.
In addition, choose short, simple words when they’ll do the same job as long, overblown terms. This helps drive home the engaging, conversational nature of the brand, though it can be rare in the university setting, particularly among faculty more comfortable with the more verbose language of publishing. Set an example for the clear communication Furman strives to teach and encourage. Use… don’t “utilize.”
Beyond favoring clear, simple diction, also aim for a concise, upbeat tone. How?
- Adopt active voice and use precise, assertive verbs, in the present tense wherever possible.
- Find the perfect word to convey meaning. Use the one perfect word rather than a few that can only approximate your meaning.
In the virtual space of a webpage, your audience doesn’t need additional directions to know that in Western culture, they’ll typically navigate left to right, top to bottom. Avoid using “following” or “below” to refer to elements on the page, when the layout of the page itself provides those indications. In addition, when calling the user to action, avoid unnecessary words that will just get in the way of acting.
- Check our list of upcoming events
- Students’ favorite coffee shops
- Read alumni news
- Check the list below
- The following coffee shops
- Click here to read alumni news
Perspective refers to the author’s relationship with the reader. In content that advocates or persuades, we recommend speaking from the first-person plural: Furman University, or the department you represent, is “we.” As you write in the first person, you’ll naturally indicate the owner, agent, or actor in an action; in doing this, you’ll automatically write in active rather than passive voice and trim nominalizations.
- In the Biology department, we encourage you to explore…
- The Biology department encourages exploration
- Exploration is encouraged by the Biology department
Sentence length and cohesion
As the target audience delves into the Furman brand and web presence, let them unwrap the present: at the highest level, they need concrete but minimal detail. Word choice must be accurate and precise, whether you’re writing a 140 character Tweet or department landing page. As they dig deeper, content can become more specific, substantial, and longer; in many ways, your reader has given you permission to offer content in this manner in exchange for their time.
In page copy, remember your reader as you create content that breaks the stereotype that “people don’t read online.” They do, when you offer them content that “pulls” them through it. First, your sentences shouldn’t ramble; aim to be clear and concise. Then to keep sentences from running wild, don’t overwhelm your readers with too many ideas at once, and don’t go on longer than necessary. But don’t use monotonous, short sentences just to avoid longer ones. This makes the rhythm choppy. Amid rhythm and sentence length, where does that leave you? Consciously vary your sentence length. Then aim for concision and cohesion: let old or known ideas introduce new thinking, then let one thought flow to the next by starting a new sentence with the concepts or terms that ended the previous one. One by one, your sentence will pull eager readers through messages of advocacy or ideas about adopting new processes into their lives.
(Yes, that was a lot of copy—but it follows the rules it espouses: it aims for cohesion, consistency, and variety in sentence length to get you to this point.)
Why does this matter? For your busy audience, content that demands their attention for more than a couple seconds must be readable and should “pull” them through the message. A little variety in how you form those messages adds energy, and gives your reader the energy to get through the text. In the time-pressured world of conflicting responsibilities, homework, and busy social lives, your good content can give your audience a reason to dig in and learn.
Tense is the form of the verb that indicates time. In general, use the present tense. Like the active voice, the present tense is assertive, concise, and confident—all qualities that support the Furman brand and voice. The present tense is also more contemporary, making events or activities seem ongoing instead of finite—key for evergreen content on the internet. This also jibes with the general, “it’s always now” tone of social media.
Voice is the relationship between the subject of the action and the verb itself. In general, phrases that use active voice are a bit shorter than similar phrases that use passive voice. They can also be more informal, though passive voice creates a false sense of formality and grace with nominalizations and wordiness. Use the active voice instead of passive voice to make content more clear and confident, in keeping with the straightforward tone dictated by the message. It’s a way of demonstrating respect for your audience.