I spent part of my morning helping a client with a CEO message announcing some tough decisions. Although the CEO is generally a supportive, straightforward guy, somewhere along the way (probably because many people weighed in on the draft), the message became convoluted and “corporate.”

It was relatively easy to address some of the message’s defects (eliminating duplication, choosing simpler words), but one problem was tough even to articulate, much less correct. The problem? The tone of voice was strained and tense.

While I was thinking about how to describe the difficulty, a metaphor popped into my head. Pretend that you’re a 10-year-old named Thomas, but whom everyone calls “Tom.” One day you do something naughty, and your Mom discovers your dastardly deed.

“Thomas!” she yells out the back door as you try to hide behind the swing set. “Come here immediately!”

You know from the fact that Mom called you “Thomas” that you’re in big, big trouble. And as you approach the house, the words Mom chooses and the way she says them lets you know that being grounded is in your future. “Thomas!” she shouts again. “Just wait until your father gets home!”

Bad news is always difficult to communicate. And it’s even tougher in a written message, without body language and give-and-take to soften the sting.

But a challenging task is made worse by the wrong tone. In the CEO message, sentences were long and convoluted. Words were college- or graduate school- reading level. Nothing was conversational or informal. “Thomas!” the message shouted. “You’re in trouble now, young man!”

My client and I worked to bring “Tom” back into the message. It was difficult to be completely successful, but by the time we were done, the CEO’s personality was back. Instead of yelling, the tone was now human and genuine. As a result, the message read like this: “Tom, we need to talk.”

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