“The tone is the message.” - Kevin T. McCarney
Just like tone of voice can make a major impact on verbal communication, the tone of our writing affects the way a reader receives a message and the actions they take as a result. While the wrong tone can alienate a reader, the right one can help establish deep connections and drive outcomes for your organization.
Tone is a powerful force that we use to express our attitude through writing. It often reflects the writer's mindset toward a subject, purpose, or reader—and this can carry a lot of weight. Leaders must be particularly careful to choose an appropriate tone in their writing, and today we’ll explore exactly why this is a critical communication skill for your leaders to master.
To get started, consider the tone used in the following email sent out a few years ago to 400 managers by the CEO of a software development company:
Less than a week after this message was sent, it was posted online. Not surprisingly, investors were concerned about the company’s culture and the CEO’s suitability for the job. Nigel spent weeks trying to win back the goodwill of his staff, customers, and stockholders, but the company’s stock dropped 22%.
How can you help your leaders avoid an embarrassing and detrimental outburst like this? Here are a few rules to determine the proper tone to use:
- Match a message’s tone to its reader
The best leaders know how to adjust the way they communicate based on their audience. Like we mentioned in part one of this series, it’s important to take time before any written communication to strategize and plan an approach. Your leaders should take their audience and purpose into consideration before writing to help them determine the best tone to adopt and, ultimately, drive the action they hope to achieve.
- Resist using email to vent
Email is not the place to air grievances. Writing can be a great way for your leaders to get their thoughts on paper, but there’s no reason to hit “send” if and when they’re angry. As you saw in the example above, one out-of-line email can produce devastating consequences for your organization. On top of that, research shows that venting in this way can actually make us angrier. Written communication is notoriously difficult to gauge, and leaves readers with no way to interpret the context and intention of your leaders’ message, so they need to know when to take a cooling off period before sending.
- Soften the blow of bad news
There will be times in your leaders’ journeys when they are forced to deliver unpleasant news via email. In these instances, no matter how appropriate their tone, their reader will likely have trouble staying receptive. When possible, save difficult conversations for a face-to-face meeting. If there is no other option, your leaders should do their best to soften the blow by keeping their tone warm, direct, and personal. They need to resist the urge to use harsh criticism or hyperbole and always read their message out loud to check their tone before hitting “send.”
- Adopt a “you” attitude in writing
As your leaders write, they should keep the needs and interests of their readers top of mind. Team members are individuals, and your leaders taking the time to address them as such will help them come across as empathetic and understanding. Making the small adjustment of consciously using “you” and “your” more often in their writing will dramatically improve overall tone. This will help keep a message’s tone friendly and reflects an awareness of the reader as an individual.
Don’t be like Nigel. To help your leaders inspire their teams towards success, ask them to take the time to think through their ultimate goals and the potential effects a negative tone could have on their readers.