Email tone: 7 steps to success

Posted on 17 February 2016 by Emily Stella

Most people remember the emotional tone of an email more vividly than its content. It’s therefore key to getting your reader on side.

You convey your tone through word choice, punctuation, sentence structure, letter case, and the way you open and close your email. Subtle tweaks to your writing here and there can have implications for your tone – as shown in the examples below.

Casual: Did you get my email last week? It summed up the kind of work we do at Lothbury.

Personal but professional: I hope you received my email last week and it gave you a flavour of the work we do at Lothbury.

Formal: I am writing to you to follow up my email last week introducing the services of my company, Lothbury.

Casual: We don’t meet the criteria for this tender, which means applying is a waste of time, and we don’t have the manpower to do this much work.

Personal but professional: I’m not sure this tender is a good fit for us; we don’t meet all the criteria and we don’t have enough people to complete the work.

Formal: We do not satisfy all the criteria for this tender and our team is not large enough to deliver the work.

Tone can be tricky because it’s subjective; what you might find curt, another will read as simply honest. Here are 7 steps you can take to pitch your writing at the right level.

1. Research your audience

Ask yourself, who is my reader? how well do I know them? what do they read on a daily basis? and what tone are they most familiar with? If you read what they read, you’ll understand how they’re used to being spoken to. You need to think hard about what relationship you want to have with your reader and how much physical space you want to create between you and them, because this will impact your tone.

2. Follow the leader

If you’ve already received an email from the person you’re writing to, follow their lead. If I receive an email where the greeting is just Emily, rather than Dear Emily or Hi Emily, I’ll usually follow suit and respond by addressing them by their first name.

3. Demonstrate your confidence

At all costs, avoid being vague in your emails. People will buy into you if you write confidently. But in order to write confidently, you must understand your subject matter inside out. Don’t hide behind elaborate language or acronyms such as KPIs, USPs and ROIs. Remember Einstein’s oh-so-wise words, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’

4. Accentuate the positive and address the negative (but don’t distort the truth)

You don’t need to tiptoe around your reader by dressing everything up in flowers. There is bound to be some negativity in your communication with people at certain points. Don’t run from it, but address it in a straightforward but kind manner.

5. Treat your reader as an expert

Flattery goes a very long way. Treat your reader as an expert in their field and they will like you more. For example, you might want to compliment them on a recent article they wrote or a presentation they gave. I guarantee they’ll make more time for you.

6. Use humour sparingly

What people find funny is very subjective and therefore difficult to get right. You’ll lose your reader if they don’t share the same sense of humour as you, so scrap it.

7. Read your text aloud

Often, reading your text aloud will help you determine whether you need to be more formal or tone it down a notch.
One final point – if you’re sending an important or difficult email, if you’ve got the time, sit on it for a day before hitting the send button. You might find you make changes to your language on second reading.

Emily Stella is a founder and director of Attica, a company that provides training, editing and proofreading services to enhance the quality of corporate writing.