Maxwell Stephens

Striking the Right Tone in your Written Communication

It is well documented that a major proportion of communication is nonverbal, with a lot off “between-the-lines” communication happening through things like body language and tone of voice. This one of the reasons why written communication can be challenging, and often misconstrued or misunderstood. Written communication is much more open to interpretation, and without the accompanying non-verbal cues, the perceived purpose and meaning of written communication can vary wildly between sender and receiver. When talking to someone face-to-face, their body language, tone of voice, pitch, eye contact and general demeanor give you fundamental clues as to how they are feeling. These clues provide the valuable instant feedback required to modify or adapt your communication style and what you’re saying to suit the situation, the desired outcome of any communication and the person you are speaking to.


Check your work

Written communication is very different from verbal communication, particularly within in a business environment. The first safeguard for all written communication is proofreading. Make sure you double check your writing for grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes at the very minimum. A small spelling error may seem like a trivial matter, however from our experience in the recruitment sector, small mistakes in written communication can actually have a big impact on how perceptions of an individual are formed. Remember once a written document is sent there’s no taking it back, so get the basic right!


Don’t take that tone with me!

As previously mentioned, during face-to-face communication we have a vast array of non-verbal cues to help us discern a persons mood, attitude and motivation during a conversation. In written communication these cues are gone, meaning it is much more challenging to determine an individual’s demeanour which often results in miscommunication. In written communication, it comes down to intuitiveness and instinct, coupled with an eye for detail, to help you deliver a message effectively and strike the correct writing tone.  In writing, tone is defined as the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. When writing, it is vital that you learn to tailor your tone according to the circumstances and who you are writing to. While business communication is more formal, you should know when to be assertive, conversational, persuasive, or apologetic, depending on the situation. For example, if you are writing to an individual reader, chances are that she or he will prefer a more direct, personalized, and friendly tone in your writing. However, when you are writing to a group of senior colleagues, a certain level of professionalism, combined with a conversational style, is recommended.


Tone can be a tricky thing to get right; mainly as there is no “right” way to do it. The same information can be interpreted differently by different people, which makes tone a subjective aspect of writing.


As an example take a look at the sentences below and take particular notice of the tone used:


  1. – You have to finish the project by the day after tomorrow. If you fail in doing so, we might lose the client and that will not be good for us!
  3. – The project completion deadline is the day after tomorrow; a failure in completing it might result in the loss of a client.
  5. – Richard, this client is important to us, and we cannot afford to lose this account. This project needs to be completed by the day after tomorrow; hence, we are assigning it to you. Please let us know if you want any further details.

All three statements are providing similar information, however the same thing is conveyed in three different tones, and it appeals to different people. Some might think the first sentence is too direct and even threatening to an extent, while others might just call it direct and to the point.

The second sentence could be perceived as too formal and bureaucratic in its use of language, while others will accept it as the right tone for business communication.


The third paragraph by far will be the most acceptable to people; it is courteous and has positive overtones. It has a subliminal message: “Richard, we know only you have the ability to meet the deadline, and we are depending on you.” It makes a person feel motivated and appreciated without losing the essential meaning: the importance of the project deadline.


Setting the right tone for any document is dependent upon an individual’s ability to understand readers and tailor the communication according to their needs. Writing from the reader’s point of view always helps. When deciding on the tone, choose one that is most appropriate to your reader. A good cue in deciding the tone is to evaluate the way a person’s previous correspondence to you reads and base yours on the same tone.


Here are just some of the do’s and don’ts you need to consider when creating any written communication:

  • Be confident.
  • Be sincere.
  • Use appropriate words and avoid jargon.
  • Avoid discriminatory language.
  • Always stress the positives and the benefits for the reader.
  • Write in an active voice instead of a passive voice.
  • Be friendly but maintain an appropriate level of professionalism.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences between you and your reader.
  • Use neutral job titles.
  • Avoid using masculine pronouns if addressing a mixed audience.
  • Use a neutral salutation if you do not know the gender of your reader.