By Singapore Teaching Centre, British Council

12 July 2022 - 09:00

Why tone matters in communication skills

Hey – you’, ‘Excuse me’, or ‘Could I possibly bother you to read this fascinating article?’ Business strategy author Josh Bernoff calculated that poorly written communication can cost companies up to US$400 billion a year. Let’s explore why tone matters.

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How tone makes us better communicators

Have you ever tried to talk to someone, but they sounded annoyed, distracted or even curt? Have you sent emails when you were stressed or in a rush? Or have you received an email that was a bit rude and pushy? If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you are aware of tone. 

Whether you were conscious of it or not, the tone influenced the rest of the interaction. Using your written and spoken voice effectively is a key part of interpersonal communication skills. It is often easier to identify someone else’s tone but learning to be aware of our own tone makes us better communicators.

What do we mean by ‘tone’? 

Tone refers to the sound’s pitch, quality and strength as well as character. This can be: firm or soft, polite or rude, loud or hushed, lively or monotonous, and high or low. When we remove the ‘sound’ from tone, we decipher it in written text by word choice, phrases and nuances.

In written English, there are three levels of tone: formal, neutral and informal. We naturally slide between two levels on the continuum in any conversation. Using all three at once is confusing and sends mixed signals. 

A manager saying ‘Um, do you think I could possibly bother you to do this thing we discussed …’ is using indirect, passive formal phrases. Overly polite, vague language confuses staff and does not set the tone - it’s not decisive, clear or easy to understand. A secretary using very abrupt, commanding language to management sends an abrasive tone. An HR manager using lots of slang, jargon or jokes with new, senior or disgruntled employees is too casual and could be construed as disrespectful.

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What is the correct business tone?

Business neutral is the sweet spot between formal and informal language. Historically, corporate communication was formal and neutral. However, social media has shifted corporate style away from being too stiff and formal to being open, engaging and caring.

‘My managers say my writing is too direct and blunt, but I don’t have time to be polite. I have too much to do to focus on being nice or caring’ – a business Email Writing participant. Consider these three ways of improving your business English skills.

A company’s style starts with senior management. Employees observe how the organisation’s leaders set out their communication preferences in relation to the audience. Where leaders are consistent in their behaviour, actions and style, employees quickly identify and adopt the corporate tone. Inconsistencies among the leadership, however, lead to confusion and lack of uniformity.

Tips for improvement

First of all, think about the relationship you want with your colleagues, managers and clients. Identify your own communication style and become aware of other styles, how they make you feel and how people respond to your communication style. 

Secondly, think about your audience and that will guide the words and phrases you use. Toning up your communication is all part of your personal and professional development. It can be done on several levels by developing these habits:

  1. Plan, write and then take a break before editing and reviewing
  2. Ask someone to proofread and check clarity
  3. Seek input, advice or coaching
  4. Read, watch videos and listen to podcasts
  5. Take a course to upskill.

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According to feedback, 99 per cent of our Business Email students, 95 per cent of our business writing students and 97 per cent of participants in our Interpersonal Communication Skills courses say they can directly apply the skills learned to their jobs. Being mindful and aware of our tone, leads to greater productivity, better relationships and overall job satisfaction. 

‘The [British Council’s] lessons taught me to have self-awareness of my communication style and preference and to be mindful in listening. Most importantly, communication is something we do every single day, and I think how nice it would be to have meaningful conversations with deep understanding and connections.’ 

If you would like to learn more, explore our range of full-day professional communication skills workshops.