Striking the Right Tone


If we write an A+ email – glittering with pithy content, impeccable grammar, and masterful brevity – but the tone is stuffy or condescending or brusque or flippant, the reader will consider our message a D-. Rather than reacting with gratitude and admiration, the reader might even vow to correspond with us less often.

Texts vs. textbooks

So what is the “right tone” for our work emails, letters, reports, and other documents? Is it the informality and breeziness of text messages or the formal style of textbooks? The ideal, of course, is that broad sweet spot in between.

Granted, if we’re emailing our best pal at work about lunch plans, we can probably afford to use text lingo and hit “send” without proofing, but that might be the only time all day we take that license. And if we’re writing a document that could have legal ramifications, such as an incident report, the objectivity and language of our schoolbooks – minus all the five-dollar words – should be fitting. But most of the time we don’t want either extreme. We want to watch out for “Hey, guys” and for “Herewith find enclosed.”

(In fact, what we write when we have an enclosure or attachment is instructive. Many of us go on autopilot at the end of a letter or email and write “Enclosed please find …” or “Attached please find….” But is that the way we talk? Instead, why not use “I am enclosing …” or “I have attached …”? That gives us the dual benefit of sounding more natural and, with the word “I,” reminding the reader of our relationship.)

So should we write the way we talk?

My answer is yes, with a few qualifiers. In the majority of workplace communications, our readers want to feel our personality and friendliness. Emulating the way we talk means our writing will seem natural and lively while forging more of a connection.

But by several measures our workplace writing (enhanced by our editing) should eclipse the way we talk. It should be marked by the following:
• Solid organization
• Precise and dynamic language
• Brevity
• A minimum of errors
• Oh, yeah … and a carefully constructed tone

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at 

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