In the first article in this series on writing business letters, I discussed how business professionals should focus on the needs of the reader. In this article, I’ll write about another important aspect of business communication: using the right tone.
Speakers or writers reflect their attitude to the listener by using tone. In business communication, readers can’t hear a tone of voice in a written message, but readers can deduce the writer’s tone in the way that they write. Tone in writing is not about what we say, but it is more about how we say it.
The tone of your business letters and emails projects your attitude to the reader. Your business communications should always project a positive tone that demonstrates consideration for the reader.
Write using a tone that is formal but not too formal
Most business writing uses a fairly formal tone of voice, but you should avoid sounding overly formal. You should strive to make a balance between a strictly formal tone and a very casual tone. Your writing should use a friendly but professional tone.
You should avoid fancy language, and instead write using clear and concise sentences that are easy to understand.
The first sentence below is very formal, and it sounds stiff and unnatural. The revised example is more welcoming than the original version but still demonstrates a professional tone.
Too formal example: This letter is to inform you of an upcoming seminar for all sales staff at Poole Hotel on September 20.
Revised: Please join all sales staff for a seminar at Poole Hotel on September 30.
Consider the reader
Complex sentences may confuse the reader and give a scholarly tone to your document. You should write in a way that the reader can easily understand your message:
- Break your ideas into manageable parts and address each part in a sentence.
- Use short sentences to clarify your text and hold the reader’s interest.
- Use active voice and straightforward sentences to present your ideas.
- Use familiar language and choose strong action verbs if possible.
The first sentence below is very complex and difficult to understand. The revised example states the same idea and is much easier to understand.
Complex sentence example: I hereby authorize the above repair work to be done, and hereby grant your employees the permission to operate the truck herein described on my land for the purpose of completing the repair work.
Revised: You have my permission to complete the above repair work and to drive your truck on my land.
Be courteous and professional
Business communication requires a direct and brief approach. However, if your email or letter is too brief and direct, then your communication may be interpreted as brusque and rude. You should always think about the words you are writing, and make sure that you are not offending the reader.
Consider the first email below. It is short and direct and accomplishes its purpose. However, the email lacks tact and consideration for the reader. The revised example demonstrates a more positive and pleasant tone.
Email lacking tact: We reviewed your application for the position of buyer. We have determined that you do not have the required experience. The position of buyer has been awarded to another applicant. We will keep your application on file for future reference.
Revised: Thank you for submitting the job application for the position of buyer. We were impressed by your educational background and your keen attitude. The position of buyer has been awarded to another applicant. We will keep your application on file for future reference if other similar positions become available. We wish you success in your job search.
Use a positive tone
You should always try to write using a positive tone, and emphasize what can be done rather than what cannot be done. When you emphasize the positive, you are showing the reader that you are confident and that you know what you are doing. When you use a negative tone, you may sound indecisive and show a lack of confidence.
The example below demonstrates how a positive tone is much more effective than a negative tone.
Negative example: It is impossible to issue the member card until you return the completed form with all fields completed.
Revised: We can issue you the member card as soon as you return the form with all of the fields completed.
You should focus on the options for correcting the problems rather than focusing on just the problems.
Negative example: You have not paid your bill for two months, and your account has been suspended until you make the payment.
Revised: Your account has been suspended because it is past due. As soon as you pay the amount owing, you will be able to access your account.
Here are some tips for using a positive tone:
- Avoid words like ‘complain’, ‘complaint’, ‘claim’, ‘forgot’, ‘failed’, and ‘neglected’. There are many more words that will have the same negative effect, and this negative tone simply must be avoided.
- Use tact and avoid condescending comments.
- Focus on the solution, not the problem.
When writing any business communications, you should write using a tone that considers the needs of the reader. A letter that sounds very friendly to one person could be interpreted as presumptuous to another person. Aim for a friendly, courteous, and professional tone in your business communications to achieve the best results when writing letters and emails.