We have some seriously weird ideas about tone. I say this because I train 800 to 1000 people each year, and I hear some really surprising and contradictory perspectives:
- bullets feel too formal
- bullets feel too informal
- I could use structure in an email to someone I work with, but not to a stranger
- I could use structure in an email to a stranger, but not to someone I work with
- I couldn’t put a pleasantry in an email to someone I’ve never met before
- I’d never write an email to someone I’ve never met before without a pleasantry at the beginning
So here’s what you need to know:
Tone is incredibly subjective
Like, completely subjective. We each feel quite confident when we’re writing, that we’re being polite, or warm, or assertive, or respectful.
And then there’s your reader. Who receives your message based on their history, their own perceptions of the meaning and tone of words, and also their current mood. NONE OF WHICH YOU CAN CHANGE.
We need to mitigate the likelihood of being misinterpreted
There are no guarantees when it comes to writing, because we’re writing to humans, and because language is subjective. But we can stack the odds in our favour. We can write in a way that is both fast, efficient, and less likely to allow the reader to hear an unfavourable tone.
To do that, we need to know 4 things:
1. There’s no such thing as a neutral tone
The absence of warmth doesn’t equal neutral. It equals rude. The absence of pleasantry, friendliness, signs that you’re an actual human, doesn’t create a matter-of-fact tone. It creates abruptness, and opens the door for your reader to decide you’re an asshole – especially if they’re having a bad day.
2. A simple smiley or sad face can help
Emojis are not going anywhere, my friends. Love them or hate them, we can‘t dispute that a simple smiley can lessen the likelihood that a statement comes across as snarky 🙂. Or a sad face makes it less likely that an apology comes across as insincere 🙁.
Will you find some people in business who think that’s unprofessional? Yes. In my experience, about 0.2%. But unless you’re positive you’re dealing with one of those 0.2% (with REAL EVIDENCE to back that up), wouldn’t it make more sense to assume you’re writing to one of the 99.8%?
The written English language is subjective and limited in its ability to express the subtleties of tone. Every little thing we can do to mitigate that is a win!
3. Narrative is risky
Ever heard of emotional leakage? Sounds messy. And it is. When you write in a narrative form, ie sentences and paragraphs, it’s easier for 2 things to happen:
- your emotions leak through
- your reader thinks they can feel your emotions leaking through
Hence, emotional leakage.
So what’s the alternative? How do we mitigate that? Structure!
4. Structure mitigates the risks around tone
Structure is your best friend in an email. Here’s what it does:
- gets your thinking clearer
- makes it easier for your reader to skim read
- makes your writing more matter-of-fact, less narrative, thereby reducing the likelihood of emotional leakage
- makes you look like a badass efficiency freak who everyone wants to work with