Email Tone and How to Manage It

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.

Have you ever opened an email, started reading, and, five words in, felt a strong visceral reaction?

Perhaps it is a warm flush of gratitude and recognition, a tightness in your chest that holds excitement and opportunity. Or maybe it’s the hair on the back of your neck that starts to bristle in anger or frustration?

We have all read emails where the vocal tone of the writer erupts from the screen. When email tone goes right, it barely gets noticed. But when it goes wrong, it can cause offense, irritation, alienation, demotivation, and inaction.

Sometimes it is not the writer who imbues the email with tone. Sometimes it is the reader. As writers, we cannot control the mood or attitudes with which a reader consumes our email. But we can make the greatest efforts to be appropriate in the tone with which we write.

So what goes into tone? In a voice, we hear it in pitch and rhythm and inflection. On a screen, we see it in word choice, punctuation, sentence length, and the presence or absence of niceties – “please” and “thank you”. Those are the external indicators that make an audience hear tone. From those indicators, an audience subconsciously gauges at least four important factors: formality, familiarity, force and feeling.

As communicators, if we want to be intentional and appropriate with our tone, we need to start by asking ourselves one simple question: How do we want the audience to feel? Being thoughtful and intentional about the impact we want to have on the audience gives us a greater chance of achieving it.

But if you need to dig deeper into your tone, consider self-assessing those four factors, each on a spectrum:

Formality

What level of formality do you want for this audience and situation? Do you need to use formal greetings to show deference to the reader or formal language due to the seriousness of the issue? Or do you need more casual language to put the reader at ease?

Familiarity

What level of familiarity will accurately represent your relationship with this audience, help you build connection on this topic, and further strengthen your long-term rapport? What greeting and sign-off have they used recently with you?

Force

How forceful and direct do you want to be with your assertions and requests? Do you know, from past experience, what degree of directness yields the best results with this audience? How urgent and critical is this situation?

Feeling

This one is the most complicated. How do you feel about the issue and how does audience feel? Is there emotional “scar tissue” to avoid? Is this a “good news” or a “bad news” message? Are you looking to change their feeling with this message – or reinforce it?

How the audience interprets those factors dictates their reaction. And their interpretation is, of course, also dependent on where they find themselves – both physically and emotionally. You may be fine with three of the factors, but if one is off, it can be the cause of a counterproductive reaction.

We all need to be mindful of these factors and how they come through in our communication. But we also need to develop the types of relationships that are built on mutual understanding and have room for courageous conversations when reactions and intentions diverge. If we fear that a message we’ve sent has landed poorly, or if we’ve read something that offends or angers us, or if in some other way written communication has failed us, we need to consider alternative avenues to defuse and repair the situation. Most often, that requires picking up a phone, starting a video conference, or having a conversation in person, being able to see and hear each other’s verbal and non-verbal communication. And then it all comes back to considering and listening to the other person’s perspective – the cornerstone to effective communication.

At The Latimer Group, we believe that great communication skills can change the world. We transform people and organizations with simple, repeatable techniques and mindsets. We teach persuasive communication skills through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and eLearning. To learn more about how we can transform your organization, e-mail us at info@TheLatimerGroup.com

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.