Choosing the Right Tone

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Choosing the Right Tone

Choosing the Right Tone

Tone in writing is just as important as tone in speaking. The tone of the message will affect the reader just as the tone of voice affects the listener.

Your attitude toward the reader and even toward the content of the message will influence the tone of the document. You want the readers to perceive the message as a professional communication meant to either provide information or persuade them to do something.

There are two basic questions to consider when determining the tone of the document.

  1. Why am I writing this document?
  2. Who is my primary audience and what do I want them to understand?

When answering the questions, take a minute and reflect on how you feel about the content of the document as well as the recipient. Keep your thoughts:

  1. Neutral.
  2. Professional.
  3. Purposeful.

as you set the tone of your communication.

Why Am I Writing This Document?

Take the time to think about the purpose of the document.

  1. What is it you want to happen as a result of this document?
  2. Is it an information piece that needs no response or is it something that requires the audience to take action on?
  3. Do you know a lot about the topic itself or are you writing about something you are not quite sure of?

The tone of your document will convey your confidence (or lack thereof) to your reader, so be sure to use language that will make you sound not only competent, but confident. Your reader will trust you more and be more likely to do what you want if he or she feels you know what you are talking about.

For example: Marcella has accepted a position at another company. She is not quite sure what tone to employ in her letter of resignation. She asks herself what she hopes to accomplish with the letter.

The answer she arrives at is she wants to let her current supervisor know that she appreciates the opportunity to work for the company and she has learned a lot. She does not want to burn any bridges in making this move to a new company. Once she has thought about those things, she is able to write the resignation letter with a professional and grateful tone.

Who Is My Primary Audience and What Do I Want Them to Understand?

When thinking about your audience, you need to consider how much information you need to include, how to include it, and what level of language you are going to use. All of these things come together to convey the tone of the message.

If you are writing a memo to your team members, letting them know that deadlines have changed, the level of detail and language will be much different than if you are sending an email to a supervisor to update her on the progress of the project.

When writing a business message, the tone should be confident, courteous, and sincere. Language becomes important as well as the level of understanding in the document. Some general guidelines that will help you write professional, competent messages with the appropriate tone are:

  1. Write with confidence.
  2. Write sincere, courteous messages.
  3. Use appropriate, non-discriminatory language.
  4. Emphasize the benefits for the reader.
  5. Make sure your reader understands what you are writing.

Let's examine each of these guidelines.

Writing with Confidence

In order to get your message across with confidence, you need to be prepared. You need to be knowledgeable about the subject and write with confidence without being overbearing.

You do not want your reader to think you are being presumptuous or arrogant; therefore, the goal is to present yourself in a confident manner, showing your competence in the subject matter.

For example: You are writing a memo to your supervisor asking for approval of a proposal:

  • INAPPROPIATE: Any fool can see that denying this project will result in a huge loss of revenue.
  • APPROPRIATE: Review of the cost/benefit analysis for this project shows that going forward with it is a sound financial decision.

Writing Sincere, Courteous Messages

Politeness in a business message is not enough. You must also be sincere. You want your readers to believe that you actually mean what you say and are not just being courteous because you think you have to be.

You need to be respectful and honest in your communications, even when delivering negative news. Your readers will be more willing to accept the message if they feel they have been treated with respect.

For example: you are writing a note explaining why a request was denied:

  • INAPPROPIATE: You did not sign the required paperwork like you were told to; therefore, your request is denied.
  • APPROPRIATE: I had to deny your request because the paperwork was not signed.

Using Appropriate, Nondiscriminatory Language

Language that singles out specific people or causes someone to feel he or she is not being treated fairly is discriminatory. There are several ways to avoid the use of discriminatory language in a professional business environment.

  1. Use neutral job titles like Chairperson instead of Chairman or Chairwoman, unless of course you know the gender of the person. It is also acceptable to refer to the head of the committee as the Chair.
  2. Do not use demeaning or stereotypical terms like "the girls in the office." Instead of the demeaning word "girls," use "women" or rewrite the statement to eliminate all reference to the person or people. For example: WRONG: The office is closed when the girls go to lunch. RIGHT: The office is closed during the lunch hour.
  3. Do not use words that imply gender. For example, do not say: "All the husbands of the admin staff are invited." Instead, say: "All the spouses of the admin staff are invited."
  4. Do not use language that identifies someone as a member of a certain group. For example, it is inappropriate to say: "Umberto Gomez does a great job, considering his age." Instead say: "Umberto Gomez does a great job."
  5. It is not appropriate anymore to use the masculine pronoun as a universal, all-purpose pronoun. For example, "Each officer on the police force must buy his own gun." Not all the officers are men, and the use of the pronoun "his" is not a generic pronoun that includes both men and women. The proper way to write this is: "Officers on the police force must buy their own guns." OR "Each officer on the police force must buy his or her own gun."
  6. The same rule applies to the salutation in a letter. Do not use the masculine form of greeting (Dear Sirs or Dear Gentlemen) if you do not know the gender of the recipient. It is appropriate to use "To Whom it May Concern" in this instance.

Emphasizing the Benefits for the Reader

If your purpose is to persuade your reader, you will want to give him or her some incentive for doing what you ask.

Therefore, it is important to write from the reader's perspective. In other words, use a structure that will answer the question the reader is asking him or herself: "What's in it for me?"

Writing from your perspective is: "I will not be working on your project until next week." Turn it around and let your reader know what is in it for him or her: "I will complete your project by the end of next week."

If there is some kind of reward or other benefit for the readers, tell them. For example, "You will see an increase in productivity in your department once this process is implemented."

Making Sure Your Reader Understands What You Are Writing

The style and structure of your writing must match the reading ability of your audience. If you are explaining a new software program to a group of IT professionals, you will use jargon and technical language that you know they can understand.

On the other hand, using that same technical language and jargon to the end users of the software program will only frustrate them. Technical language needs to be simplified for non-technical readers, but not "dumbed down" to the extent you insult them.

Here is an exaggerated example of using technical language for a common nursery rhyme (from

  • Three visually impaired rodents,
  • Three visually impaired rodents,
  • See how they traverse at a gait faster than walking, not quite a run, as rodents tend to amble or canter, but still they moved rather quickly,
  • See how they traverse at a gait faster than walking, not quite a run, as rodents tend to amble or canter, but still they moved rather quickly,
  • They all pursued the female of the Homo sapiens race, matrimonially affiliated with a male of the Homo sapiens race, usually associated with agriculture; who physically removed their rear appendages with a curvaceous chunk of stainless steel, that had been rendered rather deadly by an act of repetitive grinding at various angles, by a specialist in metal working
  • Has one ever witnessed such a bizarre, phantasmagorical spectacle as three visually-impaired rodents?
  • While this is an absurd and extreme example, you can see how using technical language in that nursery rhyme would do nothing but confuse the audience: a small child.