Tone is important in emails – the wrong tone can get you into trouble
When we’re writing business emails in a hurry, we often forget to check the tone.
Sometimes it helps to put the email aside if you’re having difficulty with the tone. Another test is to read your email aloud and see how it sounds. And if the email is an important one, email it to yourself and print it out.
Another tip is to enter the sender’s name last to prevent yourself sending the email too soon.
Your relationship with the person and the purpose of your email will dictate the formality or informality of your email. With colleagues your tone will be much more informal than with senior managers or clients.
Common email tone problems
Many emails come across as too abrupt because we’re in a hurry and just want to get to the point. Sometimes a brief explanation may help. And even an exclamation mark may soften your tone.
Please send me your board paper immediately.
Please send me your board paper immediately – we’ve got a new chair and the pressure is on to produce our papers on time this month!
A common tone problem is people being too ‘flowery’. In the following sentence, the sender was following up a previous request in a roundabout way to avoid asking outright.
May I kindly ask if you had a chance to review the template I previously sent (attached for your easy reference)?
Can you please review the template I sent you last week (attached).
In Great Email Disasters, Chas Newkey-Burden cites the case of a school principal accidentally forwarding an email to a colleague and the woman who’d sent the original email, saying:
Tell her to get stuffed.
The woman had complained about students damaging her fence when retrieving footballs from her garden. The principal was not sympathetic because he was frustrated by local residents who were stalling plans for a new school block.
Tips to improve your email tone
Emails are more conversational than many other types of writing and we make greater use of the personal pronouns, I, me, my, we, you and your.
Sometimes you can change the whole tone of an email by changing the emphasis from I to you. The use of ‘you’ makes the writing more inclusive.
I am organising an event and I would like assistance with the invitations. I will send the draft that I would like word-smithed.
Would you be able to help write the copy for the event I’m organising? I’ll send you the draft to see what you think.
However, sometimes if we’re angry, the use of ‘you’ is confrontational and you’re better to start with ‘I’ and possibly use the passive voice.
You promised to send me the final draft yesterday and you still haven’t sent it.
I need to sign-off the final draft. Can you please send it now.
In formal business writing, many writers think contractions (can’t instead of cannot) are unprofessional. That’s not the case in emails where contractions are the norm.
We use contractions because we’re writing more informally and use more personal pronouns, for example, I’ve, we’re, you’ve.
Use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
When you are asking someone to do something for you, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are always appreciated, particularly if the task has required some effort.
Sometimes an email ‘thank you’ is not sufficient and you may choose to make a phone call or send a card.
However, ‘please’ is not courteous when it’s used with a passive-aggressive edge.
Can you please remember to send your invoice as soon as the work is completed. (This statement implies you didn’t send the invoice out promptly last time.)
And ‘Thank you in anticipation’ can come across as a camouflaged command, whereas ‘Many thanks’ seems less demanding because it is more casual.
Beware of colloquialisms, slang, emoticons and text language
Colloquialisms and slang add colour to your writing, but often they are too informal and can also be clichéd.
No probs. Just hang in there. I’ll get back to you pronto.
Such language is fine with friends, but is unprofessional if sent to colleagues or managers.
The same applies to emoticons and text language.
In Business Writing With Heart: How to build great work relationships one message at a time, Lynn Gaertner-Johnston says wording things positively helps build relationships.
She gives the following example:
You can’t use the conference room until my meeting ends.
As soon as we wrap up the meeting, the room is yours.
She suggests using words and phrases such as pleased, opportunity, happy to, thank you and looking forward.
If you wish to improve your email skills, register for my online course: emails@work: How to write effective business emails.
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