Your writing tone is more important than you think

Anne-Marie Chisnall | November 9, 2018

Have you ever had an email that made you react strongly, and not in a good way?

We’re all affected by the tone in the business communications we receive every day. And we can all use tone as a force for good — to influence our colleagues or customers in a positive way.

The meaning of any communication is in the effect it has. — Mo Shapiro

Image, Carton of 12 delicately coloured eggs.

Tone doesn’t need to mean walking on eggshells, if you follow our tips. Image by Kelly Neil / Unsplash

How does it make you feel?

An easy way to think about tone is to think about the feelings you get when you read a communication sent to you. Take a moment to think about an email you got in the last week that stood out to you because of its tone.

Perhaps you got an email that made you smile, or inspired you, or encouraged you to sign up to something new and interesting.

Or maybe you got an email that you mentally filed away in the ‘too hard’ basket because it was overly brusque or authoritative, or just downright unpleasant.

Let’s look at two examples. Notice the feeling you get as you read each one. Which one would you rather get? And which one do you think would be more likely to get the result the writer wants?

Here’s tone example #1

Subject line: Data breach risk imminent

Using your company email address and password to log in to other websites opens us up to security risks. Hacking goes on around the world all the time, and is extremely prevalent at the moment. Obviously, hacking can have extremely serious implications for our data security, so we rely on our staff using unique passwords for every website you log into.

Unfortunately, your company email address has been caught up in a data breach. A data breach is when a website that you have an account with using your company email address has had their secure information accessed by hackers.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that your personal information has been seen, but you MUST update your passwords IMMEDIATELY to make sure your info remains secure and to prevent potentially serious consequences for our company from a data breach; for example, our company data security being compromised in some way.

We’ll be monitoring the office to make sure everyone has complied with this request this week.

Now take a look at tone example #2

Subject line: Security risk — Please update your passwords

Hi Sally

As part of checking our IT security, we’ve recently checked out all our company email addresses to see if they’ve been used on hacked sites.

Your email showed up as having been used on hacked sites, probably a while ago. You’ve done nothing wrong, so please don’t worry.

How to find out if your email has been hacked

You can click the link below to find out if your email has been used on a site that has been hacked in the past few years. For example, Dropbox was hacked in 2012 and LinkedIn was hacked in 2016. You might want to check your personal email too.

How to change your email password

You’ll see instructions below on how to change your email password. Please change your password when you receive this email.

I’ll be in the office over the next week, so feel free to ask me for help if needed.

We quickly compared the two examples

See if you agree with our assessment of each of the example emails.

Some people might say that an alarming or dramatic tone is important in situations like security breaches. But think more carefully about what the writer was trying to achieve: that the reader understands the situation and acts on the advice.

A positive tone with a clear message leads to a sense of courtesy and calm for the reader. Most of the time, people will respond to you more positively if they feel respected.

Lots of features of your writing contribute to tone. Tone can be a mysterious concept because it happens in the minds of people we’re communicating with.

Try our short online course: Tone Matters

Our series of videos illuminates the concept of tone, shows you the significant role tone plays in your life, and gives you a bunch of tools to get your tone right.

Sign up for Tone Matters at Write Online

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