In an article in E-WRITE, authors Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan discuss the importance of tone in email.
“Setting the right tone in e-mail writing is more than just choosing the right wine to go with the meal,” say writing consultants Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan in the article “Set The Tone In E-Mail: How You Say It Is As Important As What You Say,” recently published in E-Write.
“An inappropriate tone can cause a reader to ignore, delete, or overreact to your message. All business e-mail writers must be able to control the tone of their writing so their e-mail messages will have the results they intend.”
Tone, according to Rudick and O’Flahavan, is “the quality in your writing that reveals your attitude toward your topic and reader.” Tone comes from choice of words (”a well-chosen word speaks volumes,” says an anonymous writer), sentence structure, and the way information is presented.
To illustrate, Rudick and O’Flahavan ask how one prefers to be described: slender, slim, svelte, skinny, scrawny, or starved?
Because email is written quickly then sent, most e-mail writers don’t review their messages as carefully as they should. It’s therefore easy for e-mail writers to let their tone slip from professional to edgy or sarcastic, say the authors of “Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.”
When email writers review messages before sending, what they actually review is the content, not the tone. But tone is important. A flippant tone that the reader doesn’t find funny, or an angry tone can damage a relationship as well as progress on a company project, the authors assert.
Rudick and O’Flahavan list five tips on setting the right tone in email.
1.Keep Cool; Use Words Carefully
“Your mother probably told you that if you can’t be nice, don’t say anything at all. When writing e-mail, if you can’t be nice, wait. Wait an hour if you’re irritated, an afternoon if you’re angry, and a day if you’re furious.” Indeed, don’t we write to generate light, not heat?
In almost the same light, my editor in college told me that whenever he writes, he imagines having a conversation with his mother such that he’s always “on the level” with her, neither talking down nor up.
Why is it never appropriate to lose your cool in e-mail? Listen to Rudick and O’Flahavan:
- E-mail is easily forwarded so the recipient can share your e-mail rant with lots of readers.
- Flames beget flames. If you use an angry tone in e-mail your reader will probably answer in anger. While the tone escalates, the work isn’t getting done and you make an enemy of a colleague or client.
- Your employer owns your e-mail. It’s not yours and it’s not private. Don’t write in a tone you’d be uncomfortable sharing with your boss.
“Remember that well-chosen words create a personal, professional tone in e- mail. You can’t rely on emoticons to set the tone in your e-mail. Choose words because they carry meaning to all readers, some of whom may not understand emoticons or abbreviations.”
2. Choose An Appropriate Greeting And Closing
“The greeting in your e-mail establishes your relationship to your reader. Most writers of business e-mail begin their messages with ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ followed by the recipient’s first name: ‘Hello, Fred.’ Some writers begin the message with the first name only. ‘Dear’ is still an acceptable greeting in e-mail, not merely a vestige of outdated ‘print’ culture.
“If you’re writing an e-mail message to a group, use the group name in the greeting. Don’t begin your message ‘Hi, guys’ or ‘Everybody.’ Though these extremely casual greetings may sound friendly, it is actually just vague. Try ‘Dear Leadership Team’ or ‘Hello, Interns.’ A more specific greeting sets a focused tone to the message.
“Do write a closing for your message. Beside making it easier for your reader to find the end of the message, the closing seals the tone and serves as a final reminder of the main point or requested outcome. Try an action-oriented closing such as ‘I’ll call you on Tuesday to schedule the meeting.’ Or go for a gracious closing: ‘Thanks for your help,’ or ‘I look forward to meeting you.”
3. Use Personal Pronouns
“Address your reader directly to make your email writing more personal. Use the pronoun ‘you.’ Write: ‘You may use the Executive Health Club on weekends.’ Avoid: ‘Employees may use the Executive Health Club on weekends.’
“Use the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ when referring to yourself or your organization. Write: ‘I discovered that our mail room clerks were throwing away most of the promotional fliers.’ Avoid: ‘It was discovered that most of the promotional fliers were being thrown away.’ Write: ‘Because you used the product incorrectly we will not refund your money.’ Avoid: ‘Mannheim Manufacturing cannot refund your money because the product was used incorrectly.”
4. Write In The Active Voice
“Active voice makes your e-mail tone clearer and more direct. Active voice makes the ‘doer’ in the sentence clear. When you write in the active voice your e-mail tone won’t sound bureaucratic the way passive voice does. Write in the active voice: ‘We will gladly provide funding and materials just as soon as the foundation accepts your proposal.’ Avoid the passive voice: ‘Funding and materials will be provided promptly when the proposal has been accepted.’”
5. Order Information To Maintain A Professional Tone
“The beginning of an e-mail message sets the tone and emphasizes content for the message. Set a direct tone by communicating the most important information first. But what if the most important information is bad news: a cut in funding, a rejected application, the immediate transfer of the hardest-working person in the department? Will leading with the bad news damage your tone? The answer is no. Even when the main point of the message is bad news, you must lead with it. Burying the bad news somewhere in the middle or end of the message is harmful; readers may miss it or misinterpret its importance.
“We all know that the volume of e-mail we answer each day makes it difficult to write each message thoughtfully with the correct tone. But if we want our messages to achieve our goals, we must set the tone in e-mail just as we do when we speak.”