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Set The Tone In E-Mail: How You Say
It IS As Important As What You Say

by Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan

Setting the right tone in e-mail writing is more than just choosing the right wine to go with the meal. Tone in e-mail how you say and what you say is so important that an inappropriate tone can cause a reader to ignore, delete, or overreact to your message.

A versatile writer can write the same thing using a variety of tones. (Would you prefer to be described as slender, slim, svelte, skinny, scrawny, or starved?) But 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.

What is tone?

Tone is the quality in your writing that reveals your attitude toward your topic and reader. Tone comes from your choice of words, the structure of your sentences, and the order of the information you present.

Why is tone so important in e-mail writing?

It's easy for e-mail writers to let their tone slip from professional to edgy or sarcastic. E- mail emboldens writers to express thoughts they would never say to a reader's face. And e- mail is written quickly, then sent.

Most e-mail writers don't review their messages as carefully as they should. When they do review messages before sending, they're looking at 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.

Five tips in setting the right tone in e-mail

The best advice in setting the tone for your business e-mail is to write in a tone that is closest to the way you would speak to your reader in person. These five tips will help you write e-mail in a courteous and professional tone.

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. For many reasons, it's never appropriate to lose your cool in e-mail:

  • 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 approriate 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

To make your e-mail writing personal, address your reader directly. 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 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.

Let Humpty Dumpty be your guide, quoted here by Lewis Carroll:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

(c) E-WRITE, 2004 - 2007.

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area that specializes in online writing. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Learn how to write great web content and e-mail by subscribing to their free newsletter, E-Writing Bulletin at http://www.ewriteonline.com. The site also features other useful resources.

Some Related Articles:

Elevating Customer Service E-Mail from Adequate to Excellent
Answering E-Mail From Angry Customers
Don't Let Internal Email Destroy Team Unity
Do's and Don'ts for Using Email at Work
Top Email Mistakes That Can Sabotage Your Career


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