Tone in Business Writing

by Alexander Steele

Whenever you put words together, a tone is sounded, much like a note of music carries a tone.

So what exactly is tone? Tone conveys the writer’s attitude toward the audience, which often comes through whether you intend it or not. More importantly, the tone will make the audience feel a certain way upon reading the words.

Yes, we are professionals, but that doesn’t mean we check our emotions at the door when we walk into the office. When someone is rude to you, you get pissed off. When someone is condescending toward you, it triggers a sense of insecurity. You’re human. You can’t help it.

Whenever you send a communication, you want something—be it motivation or a sale or a task accomplished. If you incite negative feelings with your words, you are less likely to achieve your goal because the other party will feel a little less interested in working with you.

On the other hand, if you can avoid making people feel bad—or, even better, make them feel good—then you increase your chance of success.

For this reason, you always want to be aware of the tone your words are carrying. When you speak to someone in person or via phone/videoconference, your voice, expressions, and physical demeanor convey much of your tone. With writing, the tone is conveyed solely through the words, and you rely upon your audience to interpret them correctly. Therefore, you need to give people enough cues and clues to perceive the desired tone.

Getting the tone right is not an exact science. It’s a bit like tuning an instrument. You have to listen closely, then use trial and error as you calibrate, until the tone of the instrument sounds good to you. And it’s somewhat subjective, because what feels right to you may feel differently to someone else.

It takes a little time and effort, and, most importantly, it takes an ability to “hear” the tone emanating from your words.

Don’t fret too much about this. It’s not about mastering an elusive writing skill as much as it’s about paying attention and using good judgment. You want to understand the audience and situation well enough to avoid making a move that feels off-putting or wrong-headed. Achieving the perfect tone is not as important as avoiding a tone that is counter-productive.

Let’s say you are a marketing director for Good Tidings Insurance, a small but stalwart company that’s been around for fifty years, and you are in charge of assembling a brochure on the new Hearth and Home policies. You’ve gone through a few drafts with a new freelance designer. His work has been fairly good, but not without mistakes. His third draft still has some major problems, so you dash this off:

Much work to be done still. We had discussed using ample white space to make things easier on the eye, but I’m not seeing it. The blue does not match the blue in our brand guide. And the back page is aligned incorrectly. Please get me a revision soon as possible.

The points are fine, but the tone is abrupt. It starts with a criticism, and we sense dissatisfaction in every line that follows. Basically, you’re barking orders. The designer is bound to feel either discouraged or ticked off.

What if you tried a kinder approach, like so:

Great work on this! It’s almost there! We could just run with this version, but, if it’s okay with you, perhaps we could do another round? Maybe we could use a little more white space on all the pages to make things easier on the eye. And I wouldn’t mind if the blue was a little closer to the blue in our brand guide. And I may be wrong, but it looks to me like the back page might be aligned incorrectly.

Much nicer, for sure. But it’s too passive in tone. The designer could interpret your needs as mere suggestions, to be followed or not. And you come off as wishy-washy, unsure of what you really want.

How about this version:

Thanks for the good work, and we are getting close. But there are some things we should address. We could still use more white space, to make things easier on the eye. And please check to see if your blue is matching the blue in our brand guide. And it looks to me like the back page might be aligned incorrectly. Let me know if these notes don’t make sense, or you want to discuss further.

The tone is excellent. It begins on a positive note. The requests for improvement are given in a clear but not unpleasant manner. And it ends with you offering to help in any way you can, showing you are in this together. The designer will be happy to follow your suggestions, and to work with you again.

This material is taken from Gotham’s Business Writing course.