Tone is the attitude communicated by our words in both speaking and writing. Just like in speaking, the tone we use in writing has a direct effect on the success of our communication.

When we speak, we can change the tone of our voice up and down, sending a message about our attitude to the person or people listening to us. For example, we could say ‘that’s wonderful’, but if we use a low, flat tone, we are using a sarcastic tone, which communicates that we actually believe the opposite of what we are saying (that it is not wonderful). If we raise our voice high, however, we are using a friendly and genuine tone, showing that we are genuinely interested in what the other person is saying (think about how different a message you are sending with even a simple word like ‘okay’ or ‘right’, depending on how you say it).

In writing, tone directly influences the way the reader reacts to your written message too. However, unlike in speaking, tone in writing is communicated by the words you use, not the way you use your voice. When someone reads your words, they cannot see your face or hear your voice, so they will interpret your tone based on your words only. Therefore, you need to make sure that you are very careful about your tone.

Even if you are angry or annoyed with the person you are writing to, you need to think about whether the tone you have used is likely to help you achieve what you want to achieve from the communication.

Effective writers always read over their words and think about how the reader might interpret those words, and make any relevant changes, before they send anything.

How do I ensure a positive tone?
Here are some suggestions:

  • Use positive words or phrases rather than negative ones

    Words that affect your reader positively are likely to produce the response you want, because the reader will more likely feel relaxed and ready to read what you have to say. In other words, a positive emphasis will create goodwill, which is more likely to persuade.

    Also, by giving a positive impression in your writing, you are maintaining a positive impression of you and your business overall. People will start to associate receiving something from you or your business with positive feelings, which is good for marketing and brand-building. In contrast, negative words may cause resistance and other negative reactions.

    So, try to use positive words or phrases in your writing like ‘do’, ‘can’ and ‘able to’ rather than the negative ‘do not’, ‘can not’ and ‘unable to’. Compare these two ways of conveying the same information:‘We can deliver the product to you on Friday.’‘We cannot deliver the product to you until Friday.’

    It is the same information, but in the first case, you leave the reader thinking that getting the product on Friday is a positive thing (or no particular feeling either way), whereas in the second, they are likely to feel that getting the product on Friday is negative. Why would you take that chance of giving a negative impression when it is not necessary? Always avoid words with negative connotations when you can.

    With this in mind, I once modified some wording in a proposal from:’We cannot start until you provide data in the correct format’ to: ‘We can start as soon as you provide the data in XML format’.What sort of tone was the first sentence sending to the prospective customer?

    (By the way, I reframed the sentence positively, but I also gave the reader the information they needed to do the right thing – the format they needed to provide the information in. That’s another important aspect of effective writing – making it as easy as possible for the reader to do the thing you are asking them.)

  • Soften negative information

    When you do need to present negative information, soften it by doing the following:
    1. Stress what something is rather than what it is not.
    2. Emphasise what you or the company can and will do rather than what you or it cannot.
    3. Write from the reader’s perspective – emphasise the benefits for them, not you.Compare the examples below.

    Which would be more likely to elicit a positive reader response?
    ‘We cannot ship in lots of less than 12.’
    ‘To keep down packaging costs and to help customers save on shipping costs, we ship in lots of 12 or more.’

    Of course, there are many other things that you can do to ensure effective writing (and therefore the success of your communication) – and this guidance won’t always be appropriate – but remembering to use a positive tone is one important tool in your writer’s tool-bag.