Tone matters in emails
When we’re writing emails in a hurry, we often don’t think much about the tone, but if the email is important to you, it’s a good idea to examine it and see how you come across. It is easier to be careless with emails than with other media. For instance, with phone and face-to-face communication we have non-verbal cues to go by. In Word documents, which we think of as more permanent than emails, we pay more attention to formatting and layout. We also usually spend more time writing a Word document and choose our words with greater care.
If you concerned about the tone of your email, it helps to put it aside and reread it later. Another test is to read it aloud and see how it sounds. As you read it over, try to put yourself in the place of the person you’re going to send it to. Another tip is to enter the sender’s name last to prevent yourself sending the email too soon.
Even when emailing colleagues who are friends, remember that everything you send reflects on your personal reputation and your employer’s brand. And they may also forward it to other people. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of an email being read by someone we didn’t send it to.
Or you may send a message to the wrong person by mistake. A friend of mine who was leaving a company and was in the midst of negotiating severance pay with his boss complained about him in a round-robin email to other colleagues, accidentally leaving the boss in the Send list. Amongst other things he said, ‘And don’t let this get into the hands of that bastard’.
Massaging words for tone
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. You will take more time and care writing a ‘tricky’ email than emails making ordinary, everyday requests.
Whatever your relationship with a person, everyone appreciates courtesies, such as being addressed by name in the first email correspondence.
You can easily adjust your tone by adding, deleting or changing specific words.
Abrupt: I need the information today.
Polite: Can you please send me the information today. I need it to finish my report. Thanks.
Casual: Under the pump. Need that info from you today. OK? Tx.
Common tone problems are emails that are too abrupt, flowery or angry.
Many emails come across as too abrupt because we’re in a hurry and just want to get to the point. Sometimes such emails benefit from massaging to soften the message and 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’ when they want you to do something and it comes across as obsequious or even passive-aggressive. 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).
Even worse than too abrupt or too flowery emails are ones that are sent in haste when the person is angry. In Great Email Disasters, Chas Newkey-Burden cites the case of a school principal who received an email from a woman complaining about students damaging her fence when they climbed over it to retrieve footballs from her garden.
The principal was not sympathetic about her problem because he was frustrated by local residents who were stalling plans for a new school block. He simply forwarded the email to a colleague with a brusque order at the end. Unfortunately he also sent it to the woman concerned, with his angry comment:
Tell her to get stuffed.
Personal pronouns – I and you
Emails are more conversational than many other types of writing and we make greater use of the personal pronouns, I, me, my, 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.
You haven’t met any of your deadlines.
I am concerned that the deadlines aren’t being met (passive).
Please and thank you
‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are courtesy words, but they can be double-edged. When used positively, they are courteous, even powerful; when abused, they are irritating or worse.
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. For instance, if I send everyone some information after a workshop, I don’t expect a thank you, but if I respond to someone’s grammar question, I appreciate being thanked.
Sometimes an email ‘thank you’ is not sufficient and you may choose to make a phone call or send a card. Occasionally, it’s worth stopping and thinking about who you should thank for help they have given you and what’s the best way of thanking them.
A ‘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.)
Deleting the ‘please’ doesn’t improve the tone of the above sentence. A reminder about why invoicing promptly is necessary might soften the tone.
Can you please send your invoice as soon as the work is completed – prompt invoicing means our clients pay us quicker!
A ‘thank you’ in response to a group email for some everyday information is likely to irritate recipients for wasting their time. ‘Thank you in anticipation’ can come across as a camouflaged command, whereas ‘Many thanks’ seems less demanding because it is more casual.
Colloquialisms and slang
Colloquialisms and slang add colour to your writing, but often they are too informal and can also sound clichéd or careless.
No probs. Just hang in there. Will get back to you pronto.
Such language is fine with friends, but is unprofessional if sent to colleagues or managers. Plus if your reader is not a native English speaker, your idioms may be puzzling.
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.
Ring instead of emailing?
Sometimes if you’re finding it too difficult to create the ‘right’ tone, why not ring instead?
Learn more about writing emails with my online course, emails@work.