As a trainer, I often get asked about the right tone to use in business writing. Participants from various organisations in Singapore ask me: “What is tone? How do I know if I’m using the right one?”

I always laugh and say, “Play Pacman!”

“Pacman? Isn’t that an old computer game? What’s Pacman got to do with tone?”

“Play PAC, man! Think about your Purpose, the Audience and the Context. That should guide you towards the right tone to use in the document you’re writing.”

But let me start at the beginning.

What is tone in writing?

Most dictionaries say that the tone of a piece of writing expresses the writer's attitude toward the subject or the reader. Tone is the impact the writer’s words have on the reader. It measures the reader’s emotional response to the written text.

Why is it so important?

Normally when we communicate with someone in person or even on the phone, we use the help of facial expressions, physical gestures, and tone of voice to convey our message. In written interactions, however, there is a lack of social cues. Psychologist Daniel Goleman calls this a natural “negativity bias” toward email. He argues that if the writer feels positive about an email, then the reader perceives it as neutral. If the writer feels they have been neutral, then the receiver typically feels negative about it. In other words, every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few levels of positivity by the time someone else receives it. And therefore, it becomes essential to manage tone in order to be effective and successful business writers.

 What is the appropriate tone to use in business writing?

The tone you use will depend on the purpose of your message. You may need to be persuasive when asking a colleague for something while your tone may need to be empathetic when sending out a rejection letter.

In general, it …

should be but not be
warm, friendly, conversational cold and arrogant
professional overly formal or overly familiar
clear and confident too direct & threatening or vague & passive
motivating and persuasive dull and robotic
collaborative distant

What affects tone in writing?

There are several aspects of writing which impact tone:

1) Content

The type of content and extent of detail you include shows the reader you have thought about their needs when writing. Here are some tips you could use when writing emails, reports and business cases. 

Potential Writing Situation Tips
Response to complaints Include a clear and comprehensive explanation to make your apology sincere. 
Refusal of a request Give specific reasons to be more convincing. Provide alternatives and helpful advice to show you are genuine and value the relationship.
Communicating with non-technical readers Avoid too many technical details and jargon. That way, you come across as considerate and helpful.

2) Structure and order of information

Choosing a structure based on the context / situation and your reader’s needs makes the tone of your writing persuasive by using a reader-centric approach. If your reader is new or resistant to the context, choose an indirect structure. This can make the tone empathetic and persuasive. On the other hand, if your reader is familiar with the context or a decision-maker, use the direct approach to appear clear and confident.

Direct structure Indirect structure
Your reader is familiar with the context and open to your ideas - May be interested in an overview and actionable points Your reader is new to the context or resistant to the situation - Include some background and findings before recommendations
Typically for senior management and key decision makers Typically for a wide generalist audience 
Useful for routine emails to people we know – start with the main purpose and action required. Details can follow later. Useful when writing to people we don’t know or when giving bad news - Include a warm empathetic opening to put the reader in a positive, receptive frame of mind.

3) Style and level of formality

  • Using an overly formal style with passive constructions and archaic language can make you sound cold and distant.

For example, sentence a uses old-fashioned language and a passive voice while sentence b uses a conversational style with simple words and an active voice. 

a)Your email dated xx/xx/xx has been received with thanks

b)Thank you for your email.

  • Writing in a bombastic way with big words can make you sound ‘cheem’ as we say in Singapore - pompous and unapproachable.

For example, sentence a uses old-fashioned language and big words while sentence b uses a conversational style with simple words making it more effective.

a)Enclosed herewith, a copy of the contract duly completed for your retention.

b)I have enclosed a completed copy of the contract.

  • Refusing a request or conveying bad news with negative language makes you sound cold and lacking empathy.

For example, sentence a uses negative language making it cold and overly formal while sentence b uses positive language in conveying the bad news making the overall tone of the message neutral.

a)We cannot accede to your request to extend the completion date.

b)We are sorry that we have to keep to the original deadline (xx/xx/xx).

How do I know if I’m using the right tone in my writing?

Plan with the reader in mind:

  • Who is the reader and what does the reader know / need? 
  • What is the intended outcome of your communication? 
  • What is the context in which you are communicating?

The answers will help you scope your content, choose the right structure to order your information and present it with an appropriate style and formality. You will then have arrived at the right tone.

In short, play Pac, man!

See also