Read your writing in a robot voice
In writing, you only have cold, hard text. Here's how to make sure your message accurately conveys your tone and intent.
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Today, we’ll cover an easy trick for how to edit your own writing and make sure your tone is coming across as you intended. I originally published a version of this essay in September 2018, and have expanded it. Enjoy.
Read time: 4 minutes
If you are a modern professional, words are your main lever for getting anyone to do anything. This is why it’s important to make sure your writing will get your recipient to take action, achieve the outcome you want, and represent you well. Unfortunately, we don’t always sound as warm as we think we do, and our intentions can get lost in translation.
This is why I want to share what I call the Robot Voice Method.
It’s shockingly easy for misunderstandings to happen with text
Do you have a friend who sounds cold via SMS text? In-person or on the phone, they might be the most loving, generous person. Then you read their text. You were excited to catch up and asked if they wanted to grab lunch, and they replied with “Ok.”
And you think, “Wow, do you hate me? Are we even friends??”
This is a classic example of coming across differently than intended. Your friend might have great intentions, but you didn’t feel it from their message. This matters because how other people interpret your words impacts how they act and respond to you. It can either spiral upwards or downwards from there.
When you’re in person, you have all kinds of clues that supplement and add meaning, including:
Tone of voice
How fast or slow you’re talking
Pitch of voice
How somber vs light you sound
All of these are data points that contribute to meaning. They show sincerity and build trust. They help your recipient understand you.
But with the written word, you only have text.
This is why it's important to understand the constraints of your medium. The medium we're talking about today is written text: email, Google Docs, Notion, memos, DMs, social media posts, texts, iMessage, Slack, tweets, etc.
Your work likely requires you to communicate via text, so you might as well get better at it (and save yourself time and emotional labor from dealing with misunderstandings due to poor writing).
You’re probably adding tone of voice without realizing it
Try saying the word “thanks” in these ways:
“Thanks” - sarcastic because you secretly mean “no thanks”
“Thanks” - pleasantly surprised
“Thanks” - bored, unimpressed, obligatory
“Thanks” - looking you in the eye, borderline guilt because you’re so appreciative
“Thanks” - peppy, casual, “thanks for handing me my receipt” kind of thanks
All those emotions you just showed? You won’t be there to show how genuine you sound and how trustworthy your face looks. You should be prepared for your recipient to read your “thanks” in the worst possible way.
This is especially true if you don’t know each other well and can’t count on getting the benefit of the doubt. But really, this applies even if you do know each other well, per the example of friends texting each other above. Trust is surprisingly fragile, so why risk it when taking a few extra seconds could create more goodwill?
How to use the Robot Voice Method
The idea of reading your writing out loud isn't new. But you’re probably giving yourself a boost by reading in a happy voice, adding emotion, and sounding positive.
The Robot Voice Method is a way to edit your own writing and check for tone by intentionally reading your own writing in a bland, disinterested, machine-like voice. The goal is to mimic the constraints of your medium. Here’s why this is helpful:
Because you’ll get a more accurate sense of how your message may be received.
Because you can identify areas of risk in your message, so you can address them or be comfortable with the potential downside.
Because it’s shockingly easy to have misunderstandings in writing. The more you embrace this, the more you can accurately represent your intentions and use words intentionally as a lever.
Your recipient will read your note through their own emotional lens at the moment, which you have no control over. They might read your words with the emotional excitement of a robot—or worse.
Here’s how to use the Robot Voice Method:
Read your writing in a robot voice. Be as monotone and blasé as possible.
As you read, jot down anything that sounds harsh.
Go back and edit those sections.
Keep editing until you can read in a robot voice and it still conveys your intended emotion.
Often, swapping out a few words is enough to make your writing sound warmer, and to capture your original intent more accurately.
Your writing should be standalone
The key is to mimic reality: Your writing has to work without your added voiceover explaining what you mean, or your facial expressions. This means your content and word choice have to do all the lifting.
When you read your writing in a robot voice, you might be surprised to discover that your note doesn’t sound as friendly as you thought. Some parts might even sound demanding, especially if you use a command sentence structure. In your mind, you sound friendly—but your recipient is reading it and thinking you sound entitled. This is why, if you’re making an ask from a position of less power, or you don’t know your recipient well, I recommend switching command sentence structures to questions.
Before: Please review and share your feedback.
After: Could you review and share feedback?
The “before” might work perfectly well, depending on the dynamic between you and your recipient. For example, my direct reports have said the “before” to me and it works because we know each other well, and we’ve already agreed I want to share feedback. They don’t need to add niceties. But let’s say you’re asking for an acquaintance to review your product’s landing page as a favor. In that case, you do want to add warmth.
The “after” might sound too warm at first glance because the text itself is warm when phrased as a question, so when you read it in a friendly voice, it feels like too much. But when you read it in a robot voice, you realize, actually, the “before” sounds cold and demanding. The “after” is almost impossible to read as demanding, even if you read it in a robot voice.
The Robot Voice Method empowers you to see your message more clearly. From there, you can edit, fix, and improve your messaging.
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