Mastering tone for business emails

Research suggests that as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal, so it is not surprising that the tone and meaning of misinterpreted emails remain high and thought to be as much as half the time.

For small businesses, email is frequently the preferred way to communicate with new leads, customers, and employees – but if you have not mastered your tone, the meaning of your message may be lost. In the worst case scenario, you may even unintentionally offend your audience.

Follow these tips to improve your tone when writing emails – or any other business communications.

Adapt to your audience

Tone reflects the writer’s attitude toward the reader, so you’ll use a different tone depending on whether you are asking a bank officer for a loan or your customer to attend an exclusive sale.

Your relationship and your purpose will help you decide on your word choices, which might be formal and somber or relaxed and fun.

Using active voice will bring your reader right to the point. Taking care always to use courteous language will keep them on the side.

Simple tone tips

If you are ever in doubt about how the email recipient may interpret your message, hit save and go back to it a day later – or ask a colleague to read and provide some feedback.

These additional tips can help you write emails that get read and avoid offense or confusion:

Avoid using slang or sexist language
Be concise, removing any unnecessary words
Be appropriately respectful of subordination
Be gracious (please and thank you go a long way with creating the right tone, and will keep you from coming off as too abrupt, especially if your email is brief).

Delivering a negative message

If your message contains some bad news, the tone becomes a bigger challenge. After all, there is no way around creating some unpleasant feelings in some circumstances. 

You can, however, avoid insult to injury by following these tips:

Thank the reader for their message, briefly explaining why you are unable to approve a request. In this case, passive voice is preferred because it helps neutralize the message.
Take care to avoid personal attacks. You can maintain a professional tone by referring to policies rather than your feelings about an event or situation.
Avoid the “bright side”. Listing any perceived benefits can come off as uncaring, by downplaying the emotional impact the reader may experience upon receiving the message.

Final tips

Drafting a style guide will help make your company’s “tone rules” clear to staff, help build greater brand recognition with a consistent voice, and help you avoid the wrong tone in your communications.

Start by defining your manner. Is it casual and fun, formal and dignified – or a bit quirky? Come up with five words that describe the tone of your brand. Then make a list of words that may and may not be permissible in your marketing emails.

To illustrate what you are aiming for with tone, include some sample text in your guide – perhaps some of your company’s collateral or examples of marketing emails that you’d like your business to emulate.


Patricia Cuchiaro