Tone in e-mail -- how you say what you say -- is so important that an inappropriate tone can cause a reader to ignore, delete or overreact to your message.

A versatile writer can write the same thing using a variety of tones. To wit, would you prefer to be described as slender, slim, svelte, skinny, scrawny, or starved?

But all business e-mail writers must be able to control the tone of their writing so their e-mail messages will have the results they intend.

Tone is the quality in your writing that reveals your attitude toward your topic and reader. Tone comes from your choice of words, the structure of your sentences, and the order of the information you present.

Why is tone so important in e-mail writing?

E-mail lacks the formatting of print and the body language of in-person communication, the words themselves carry more feeling. And e-mail messages are read quickly, so an inappropriate tone can distract your reader and obstruct your message.

It's easy for e-mail writers to let their tone slip from professional to edgy or sarcastic. E-mail emboldens writers to express thoughts they would never say to a reader's face. And e-mail is written quickly then sent.

Most e-mail writers don't review their messages as carefully as they should. When they do review messages before sending, they're looking at the content, not the tone. But tone is important. A flippant tone that the reader doesn't find funny can damage a relationship as well as progress on a company project.

The best advice in setting the tone for your business e-mail is to write in a tone that is closest to the way you would speak to your reader in person. These five tips will help you write e-mail in a courteous and professional tone.

Keep cool; use words carefully. Your mother probably told you that if you can't be nice, don't say anything at all. When writing e-mail, if you can't be nice, wait. Wait an hour if you're irritated, an afternoon if you're angry, and a day if you're furious.

For many reasons, it's never appropriate to lose your cool in e-mail:

  • E-mail is easily forwarded so the recipient can share your e-mail hissy fit with lots of readers.
  • Flames beget flames. If you use an angry tone in e-mail, your reader will probably answer in anger. While the tone escalates, the work isn't getting done and colleague or client is lost.
  • Your employer owns your e-mail. It's not yours and it's not private. Don't write in a tone you'd be uncomfortable sharing with your boss.

Remember that well-chosen words create a personal, professional tone in e-mail. You can't rely on emoticons, such as the smiley face : -), or abbreviations, such as BTW for by the way, to set the tone in your e-mail. Choose words because they carry meaning to all readers, some of whom may not understand emoticons or abbreviations.

Choose appropriate greetings and closings. The greeting in your e-mail message establishes your relationship to your reader. Most writers of business e-mail begin their messages with "Hi" or "Hello" followed by the recipient's first name: "Hello, Fred." Some writers begin the message with the first name only. "Dear" is still an acceptable greeting in e-mail, not merely a vestige of outdated print culture.

If you're writing an e-mail message to a group, use the group name in the greeting. Don't begin your message "Hi, guys" or "Everybody." Though this extremely casual greeting might sound friendly, it is just vague. Try "Dear Leadership Team" or "Hello, Interns." A more specific greeting sets a focused tone to the message and lets readers know right away who the message is for.

Write a closing for your message. Besides making it easier for your reader to find the end of the message, the closing seals the tone and serves as a final reminder of the main point or requested outcome.

Try an action-oriented closing such as "Thanks for sending me the proposal draft," or "I'll call you Tuesday to schedule the meeting." Or go for a gracious closing: "Thanks for your help," "Best regards," or "I look forward to meeting you."

Use personal pronouns. To make your e-mail writing personal, address your reader directly. Use the pronoun you. Write: "You may use the Executive Health Club on weekends." Avoid: "Employees may use the Executive Health Club on weekends."

Use the pronouns I and we when referring to yourself or your organization. Write: "I discovered that our mailroom clerks were throwing away most of the promotional fliers." Avoid: "It was discovered that most of the promotional fliers were being thrown away." Write: "Because you used the product incorrectly, we will not refund your money." Avoid: "Mannheim Manufacturing cannot refund your money because the product was used incorrectly."

Write in the active voice. Active voice makes your e-mail tone clearer and more direct. Active voice makes the doer in the sentence clear. When you write in the active voice, your e-mail tone won't sound bureaucratic the way passive voice does. Write in the active voice: "We will gladly provide funding and materials just as soon as the foundation accepts your proposal." Avoid passive voice: "Funding and materials will be provided promptly when the proposal has been accepted."

Order information to maintain a professional tone. The beginning of an e-mail message sets the tone and emphasizes content for the message. Set a direct tone by communicating the most important information first.

But what if the most important information is bad news: a cut in funding, a rejected application, an immediate transfer of the hardest-working person in the department? Will leading with the bad news damage your tone? The answer is no. Even when the main point of the message is bad news, you must lead with it. Burying the bad news is harmful; readers might miss it or misinterpret its importance.

We all know that the volume of e-mail we answer each day makes it difficult to write each message thoughtfully and attend to the tone of the language we choose.

But if we want our messages to achieve our goals, we must set the tone in e-mail just as we do when we speak.

Let Humpty Dumpty be your guide, as Lewis Carroll put it in the great egg's dialogue with Alice in "Through the Looking Glass": "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Copyright © 1995-2001 Pinnacle WebWorkz Inc. All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.

Leslie O'Flahavan and Marilynne Rudick are partners in E-Write, a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in online writing.