You’ve likely asked yourself this question, if not your colleagues or friends. And, it’s not an easy one. Business writing is challenging not only to communicate the intention, but to communicate it in the right way.
Having the proper professional tone is important. Yet, the methods to achieve it seem elusive.
This article will highlight how appropriate tone leads to more effective communication. It will also provide you with actionable tactics and tools so you can write in the right tone.
What is tone?
Merriam-Webster defines tone as the style or manner of expression in writing. Tone conveys the attitude associated with the content. Just as a person speaking can modify the meaning of words through inflection and nonverbal cues, writing can convey different meanings based on the way words are chosen and combined.
What is a professional tone in business writing?
Business writing must have the proper tone to ensure it is effective. If the tone leaves the content unclear, confusing or, worst case, offensive, the reader won’t be able to properly absorb or react to the text.
As business advances more and more into the digital world, writing in the form of email and instant messaging is taking over from in-person meetings and phone calls. The increase in text communication highlights the importance of proper knowledge and the use of tone. The following concepts are taught in more depth in all of our online business writing courses.
Defining document tone
In order to employ the proper tone in a document, you need to assess a few defining factors. Here are some of elements that define the type of tone your writing takes.
The audience is always the most important aspect of business writing. The writer needs to have a clear understanding of who will be reading the document in order to write it to their tastes. The text has to be tailored to their knowledge, needs, and preferences.
For example, a proposal written with a light-hearted, familiar tone may be suitable for a long-term, domestic client but inappropriate for another new, international client.
The tone must match the document’s goal. Each document is built to serve a specific purpose and language choice supports this purpose.
A user manual is meant to instruct and takes on a direct, neutral tone. A proposal is meant to win business and uses persuasive language to convince the reader. In order to apply the right tone, you need to have a clear concept of the purpose.
Tone varies with the document format. An email uses a different tone than a financial report or an office memo. The way the document will be sent, prepared, or consumed modifies the language used. In an era of short attention spans and long internet record-keeping, words must be phrased in ways that suit their medium.
Finally, each company has its own style. Your brand may be hip and fun or serious and steady. Writing should match the overall quality, while still conceding to the previously mentioned factors.
For consistency, brand or marketing managers may provide a style guide for use in preparing business documents.
Business tone standards
There are some general principles that apply across business writing. These standards will be modified based on the four defining factors. However, every business writer can benefit from understanding these style choices and the logic behind them.
Each trait is matched with a linguistic tool that you can use to achieve the right tone.
Confidence is appealing. Firms want to do deals with people who are confident in their business, their product, and themselves.
Tool: Use the active voice. The passive voice is more difficult for readers to understand and less persuasive.
Passive: Quick and efficient delivery will be carried out by our trained drivers.
Active: Our trained drivers will carry out quick and efficient delivery.
Tool: Avoid long sentences with the phrase “, and.” A comma followed by the word “and” is rated in readability studies as pleading rather than confident.
Unconfident: Write with more confidence and learn to project executive tone and find all errors.
Confident: Write with more confidence. Learn to project executive tone. Find all errors.
To build a sense of trustworthiness, business writing should be sincere. As it can be difficult to convey through text alone, it can be proven with evidence of past success.
Tool: Use numbers. Numbers provide clear and specific statements that are compelling to the reader. It is difficult to debate numbers so readers receive genuine information. The text reads as sincere.
No numbers: We have helped many customers reach their social media goals.
With numbers: We have helped 55 customers reach over 22,000 new customers through social media.
Positive tone is appealing to the reader. People are often motivated and attracted to a positive take. Positive output or benefits are appealing to the reader.
Tool: Phrase text in a positive way. Include phrases that are encouraging and enticing. Negative phrasing should be avoided.
Negative: Please accept the contract by Thursday at midnight. If not, we will be too busy to process your order and it may not be completed.
Positive: To guarantee delivery and top quality service, please accept the contract by Thursday at midnight.
Business documents are read by a wide audience and should be inclusive. Speaking for and within a company demands that the writer show respect to the reader.
Tool: Stay neutral. Specifically, avoid gendered pronouns. Using gendered pronouns can show inadvertent bias and be read as discriminatory by the audience. Use gender-neutral terms to avoid these issues.
Gendered: The chairman will be present to oversee the meeting administration.
Neutral: The chair will be present to oversee the meeting administration.
‘They’ as a neutral pronoun is becoming more popular. However, simply avoiding gender in writing may be a better choice. Read more on how to use the singular they on our blog.
Business writing should be easy for the reader to grasp. A common mistake is when the writer tries to draft text in a highly sophisticated way. This word choice makes the writing less accessible to the reader and therefore less successful in transferring the message. The goal is to communicate the content, not to flaunt fancy vocabulary.
Tool: Keep it simple. Short sentence structure and simple words ensure the document is accessible. Avoid using jargon. Simple does not mean condescending but written in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the audience to understand.
Complex: The offline engagement process will ensure all stakeholders can provide feedback on the retail expansion project.
Simple: A public meeting will be held with local residents to hear concerns over the rezoning application.
Certain documents, such as proposals or bids, call for persuasive language. This tone invites the reader to be convinced of a company’s qualities. Decisions rely partly on how persuasive the tone is within a document.
Tool: Use imperative for recommendations. By employing this verb form your writing is direct and instructive. It doesn’t leave space for questioning. It leaves the reader with a clear understanding of how you envision a solution.
Present: We suggest continuing with the next phase of HR expansion.
Imperative: Continue with the next phase of HR expansion.
Tool: Avoid qualifiers. Introducing qualifiers weakens the presented argument. While factors influencing success need to be indicated, they should not detract from the core message. Consider including qualifiers in a separate statement or section, if appropriate.
With Qualifiers: If at all possible, incorporating financial monitoring will likely improve quarterly results.
Without Qualifiers: Incorporating financial monitoring will improve quarterly results.
Delivering bad or sensitive news is difficult. Finding the right tone is important to ensure the message is clear but compassionate.
Avoid the tendency to hide or soften bad news by burying it. The information must be clear to the reader so they don’t feel sideswiped or manipulated. Be sincere — the reader will appreciate it.
Tool: Use a relevant buffer. If bad news is expected or won’t cause an emotional response, include the negative information at the top of the document. Incorporate an explanation to clarify and finalize the decision to the reader.
If the bad news is unexpected or may cause an emotional response, use an indirect buffer. Keeping the buffer relevant to the topic will allow the reader more time to react.
Insincere: Your experience is impressive and we enjoyed the conversation during the interview. However, we have decided to hire another applicant for this position.
Sincere: After a number of impressive interviews, we have decided to hire another applicant for this position.
How do you create tone in writing?
The right tone in business writing is essential. It’s not a guessing game but the result of thoughtful analysis and writing strategies. Incorporate these tactics in your writing, and you will find the right tone will appear on the page.
Mary Cullen Originally published August 12, 2020, updated October 11, 2021
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.