Do Your Written Communications Need a Tone Tune-Up?

It’s not what she said…it was the WAY she said it!” Ever heard that before? The tone of our communication says just as much – or maybe more about the message we deliver. While many think of tone as a sound from verbal communication, it is a part of written communication as well. Considering how much written communication is happening these days via email, twitter, texting, etc…, we really need to pay attention to the tone in those written formats.

Tone in writing can be defined as an attitude or emotion toward the subject and the reader. In order to set the right tone in your communication, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this communication?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What do I want the reader to learn or, more importantly, what do I want the reader to DO with this information?

Getting the tone right goes a long way in propelling the reader into action – even if that “action” is simply to respond. So…what factors attribute to the tone in written communication? I think there are three key contributors:

  • Word choice
  • Formatting – use of white space, capital letters, explanation points, emoticons
  • Emotional state

Word Choice – Obviously, who your audience is makes a big difference here. If focusing on written communication for the workplace, stay away from profanity or career limiting language. Typically, words that are upbeat, positive, courteous, professional, sincere and convey confidence are preferred. The words you choose will impact the formality of the communication. Remember that words do matter and it’s important to take time to consider the message you truly want to send.

Formatting – When you get a long, wordy message, it can be overwhelming for the reader…and carry a “lecture” tone. It certainly doesn’t draw the reader in and in fact may prompt hitting the delete button or an, “I’ll come back to that later”, response. Using paragraphs for each key theme or topic and providing structure with headers or sections makes the information much more consumable and easier for the reader to follow. While CAPITAL letters can highlight important information, it may also send the message that you are yelling at the reader. Similarly, the exclamation point can show excitement, but watch your word choice and frequency here. Just like using caps, it can also may set the tone of YELLING!

While the occasional smiley-face can be fun, upbeat and show excitement, overuse of these little emoticons can be annoying and are typically not appropriate for communications broadly distributed. It should be saved for less formal messages to friends and close colleagues.

Emotional State – What happens when you fire off an email or text message when you are upset? You guessed it…regret sets in. It’s always a good idea to cool off a bit or pause before hitting that send button. I think it can be therapeutic to write out how you would like to respond in the moment to vent and get those feelings out. But DON’T hit the send button until you’ve had a chance to calm yourself and go back to re-read it, or have an objective third party read it before sending to do a tone check. Bottom line, the more emotional you are about a situation the less e-anything is appropriate.  Pick up the phone or have a face-to-face meeting to resolve the situation. Otherwise, I’m afraid the little screaming emoticon will show up and you’ll be well on your way to destroying your relationship with your reader.


So before you hit the send button, check the tone so that reflects the true message you want to send to the reader. Will that message foster and build the relationship or will the tone make the reader want to tune-out?

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults.  Follow her on Twitter @Mduesterhoft or connect via email at