“Tone in writing refers to the writer's attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one's tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges.” – Scot Ober

Whether they are writing a memo, a report, or any other type of business document, business writers need to always consider their message’s tone. Tone is present in all types of communication activities, and it is ultimately a reflection of the writer, influencing how the message will be perceived by the reader.

In order to ensure that your messages have an appropriate tone, there are several things you should consider when preparing to write. Here are some questions that should help you determine your message’s appropriate tone:

  1. Why are you writing the document?
  2. Who are you writing it for and what do you want them to understand from it?
  3. What medium are you using?
  4. What kind of tone should you use?

1. Why are you writing the document?

Take some time and think about your document’s purpose in order to decide how the message should be expressed. You will obviously want the message to reach your audience, and you will probably want the reader to take some sort of action after reading it.

When considering your message and how you want to express it, its tone will become apparent.

For example, user manuals are meant to instruct readers, so they take on a direct and neutral tone. Business proposals need to convince readers and win business, so they use persuasive language.

Let’s take another example where someone is writing a job acceptance letter to their employer, but they are unsure about the tone they should take in their writing. They are accepting the position and when asking themselves what their intent is with their message, they answer that they wish to accept the position, thank the respective company for making the offer, and establish goodwill with their future colleagues. As they begin writing their letter, they quickly assume a tone which is appreciative for the offer they have been made and excited to begin working at their new job.

2. Who are you writing it for and what do you want them to understand from it?

Know who your audience is. Whether it is a colleague or an employer, you need to consider them before writing the document. Tailoring the document to your specific audience will ensure it is much more effective. You need to write your message in a way that will effectively reach the reader.

The reader’s interpretation of what is said in your message is greatly dependent on the tone you use.

Let’s take someone who is writing a cover letter for the position of Sales Representative at a local newspaper. They are not very confident that they will get the position, so they use phrases like “I hope to hear back from you,” or “I am well aware that my qualifications are unimpressive, however…”

The person reading this will likely assume that they are not qualified for this position or that they do not really want it.

The person applying for the position is clearly assuming the wrong tone. They need to consider the position they are applying for, the fact that they want to be invited to an interview, and that the employer will be looking for motivated and confident people.

3. What medium are you using?

Tone will vary depending on the document format. An email, for example, will use a different tone than an office memo or a financial report.

The way that the document is prepared, sent, or consumed can significantly influence the language used within it. The wording in a text always needs to suit the medium used to transmit it.

4. What kind of tone should you use?

Fortunately, most business messages can use the same kind of tone.

“The business writer should strive for an overall tone that is confident, courteous, and sincere; that uses emphasis and subordination appropriately; that contains nondiscriminatory language; that stresses the "you" attitude; and that is written at an appropriate level of difficulty.” – Scot Ober

The only major exceptions are when you are writing negative business messages, such as job offer denials.

General guidelines

Here are some general guidelines to consider when you are deciding the tone you want to use in your letters and how to present your information in that tone:

  • Be confident.
  • Be sincere and courteous.
  • Use appropriate emphasis, as well as subordination.
  • Ensure your language is non-discriminatory.
  • Highlight what the reader stands to gain.
  • Write your message at an appropriate difficulty level.

Be confident

You can be confident in your message if you have prepared carefully and are knowledgeable about the things you want to express in it. Take care to write in a confident manner as well. Remember that as you are preparing your business documents, you want the reader to accept the decision you have made or to do what you are asking of them. To ensure that the document is effective, you need to write confidently.

Consequently, writing your message in a confident tone will have a persuasive effect on your audience. Readers will be more inclined to accept your position and they will notice your confidence. Employers are usually more inclined to hire someone who appears confident in their abilities.

Take care, however, not to appear overconfident, as this can be interpreted as arrogant or presumptuous. In fact, it may even have the opposite effect and make your readers think you do not in fact know what you are talking about.

Be sincere and courteous

You can build goodwill for yourself if you use a tone that is sincere and polite. Remember to always strive for sincerity in your tone because politeness without sincerity can sound condescending.

Think about the words and phrases you are using in your document and how the reader will probably receive them. Readers will be more willing to accept what you are saying when you are respectful and honest, even if your message is negative.

Use appropriate emphasis, as well as subordination

By using emphasis and subordination, you can help readers understand which ideas you consider most important. There are multiple strategies that you can choose from to either emphasize an idea or subordinate it.

To emphasize an idea, consider placing it in a short sentence, as they are very effective at conveying important ideas. The following sentences can be used to provide further explanation, examples, or evidence. To subordinate an idea, you can place it in a compound sentence where the focus is not primarily on it.

Keep in mind that ideas that are placed in a document’s first paragraph typically receive the most emphasis, along with those placed in the last paragraph. Ideas can be subordinated if you place them in middle paragraphs as those usually receive the least emphasis.

To emphasize a person or a thing that is performing an action, use active voice. To emphasize the action itself, use passive voice.

In most cases of nonscientific writing, active voice is preferable to passive voice for most sentences. Even in scientific writing, overusing the passive voice of using it in long and complex sentences may cause readers to become confused and lose interest in the subject. Sentences written in active voice tend to be clearer and more direct.

Information can also be emphasized or subordinated by telling readers how you feel about it.

The space that you devote to a certain idea will also help readers understand its importance. Ideas that you want to emphasize should be discussed in more detail than those that you want to subordinate.

The language used to describe ideas can also suggest to readers how important those ideas are. You can use words like “primary,” “major,” and “most important” to emphasize ideas, and phrases like “least important” or “a minor point” to subordinate ideas.

Repeating ideas is also a great way to emphasize them. However, take care not to overuse this strategy, as readers might lose interest in what you have to say if they feel that you are needlessly repeating information.

Bolding, indenting, underlining, highlighting, or any other means of making information stand out from the rest of the text will convey emphasis. However, be careful not to overuse this strategy as it can negatively impact your design.

Ensure your language is non-discriminatory

Non-discriminatory language refers to language that treats everyone equally. This means it does not include any discriminatory words, remarks, or ideas. It is essential that you communicate with your readers in a way that expresses respect and equality for everyone. Discriminatory language is likely to come between the message and the reader, so ensure that you are not using any language that is biased against sex, sexual orientation, disabilities, race, ethnicity, age, or religion.

Here are some things to remember when writing non-discriminatory texts:

  • Use neutral job titles – e.g. “chairperson” instead of “chairman.”
  • Avoid using any demeaning or stereotypical terms – e.g. “the girls at the office.”
  • Avoid using any words that unnecessarily imply gender – e.g. “spouse” instead of “husband” or “wife.”
  • Try to omit any information about group membership – e.g. “she did a good job” instead of “she did a good job for her age.”
  • Use nonsexist salutations when you do not know the reader’s gender – e.g. “to whom it may concern” instead of “dear gentlemen.”
  • Avoid using masculine pronouns – e.g. “they” or “his or her” instead of “his.”

Highlight what the reader stands to gain

Try to write from the reader’s perspective and instead of focusing on what the reader can do for you, stress what you can do for them. Readers will often ask themselves what’s in it for them, so you need to tailor your message accordingly. This will help you avoid sounding uninterested and self-centered.

Write your message at an appropriate difficulty level

It’s crucial that your writing clearly conveys your message, so you need to write at an appropriate difficulty level for your audience. Always consider your audience and write in a manner that is easy to understand to ensure your message is getting across clearly.

Avoid using complex phrases or terms that your reader might not understand. Conversely, do not use simple terms or give insufficient examples if your reader is actually able to understand more complex writing. As a competent writer, you need to match your reader’s needs and abilities and find the most effective way of communicating with them.

What tone to use with negative messages

Delivering bad news can often be difficult. As such, tone is particularly important when you are writing a negative message. Negative messages like job offer rejections or documents that deny a request need to have a tone that is both gracious and sincere. Thank your reader for their involvement, interest, or whatever is relevant to your situation, and carefully inform them that you cannot comply with their wishes, followed by an explanation if it is warranted.

Make sure you avoid drawing attention to the actual person that is performing the action that will displease the reader. As such, it would likely be best to use passive voice when you are delivering negative messages. You might also want to avoid highlighting the benefits for the reader unless the negative message has clear benefits for them. This can be tricky, as stressing benefits for the reader in a negative message can be perceived as insincere.

In some cases, you may want to address certain faults or issues concerning the reader in your negative message. If you are writing this kind of message, remember to maintain a professional tone and not attack your reader, but instead make them clearly understand your position on the issue.

Final thoughts

Creating the right tone in business writing is essential. Finding an appropriate tone is not a guessing game, but instead the result of a thoughtful analysis and employing writing strategies.

Incorporate these tactics, consider everything we have gone over above, and you will have an easier time finding an appropriate tone for your message.