Learning Objectives

  • Understand the purpose and importance of diplomacy, emphasis, and tone in business communication
  • Gain the ability to write difficult professional emails without offending, frustrating, or confusing your reader
  • Learn to use strategies in written communication to make your own work clearer to get the response you need

Name that Tone

Consider the following lines from business emails. How would you describe the tone of each entry? What words, phrases, or other elements suggest that tone?
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  • “Maybe if the project leader had set a reasonable schedule from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
  • “Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough. Thanks for working so hard on this.”
  • “I’m not sure what else is on your plate right now, but I need these numbers by this afternoon—actually in the next two hours.”
  • “I cant remember when u said this was due.”
  • “While I appreciate that your team is being pulled in a number of different directions right now, this project is my department’s main priority for the semester. What can we do from our end to set your group up to complete this by June?

Whether in a workplace or in our personal lives, most of us have received emails that we’ve found off-putting, inappropriate, or, at a minimum, curt. Striking the right tone and being diplomatic, particularly in business communication, can mean the difference between offending your reader and building important professional relationships. And more immediately, it can mean the difference between getting what you want and being ignored.

As with any piece of writing, considering audiencepurpose, and type of information is key to constructing business communication. Truly finessing your writing so that it works for you, rather than against you, is key to forming strong professional relationships and being effective in your own position.

The following tactics and examples outline the small revisions in your writing that can go a long way in building diplomacy and not only keeping your tone appropriate, but also using it to your advantage.

First, prior to writing, consider the following questions:

  • Who is my audience? What does the audience need to know, and what do they already know?
  • Why does this email feel tricky or difficult in terms of getting the tone just right?
  • Why am I writing? Am I informing my audience? Asking for help? Delivering bad news?
  • Do I have strong feelings about the subject or situation that might get in the way of writing effectively and appropriately?
  • Are there specific elements (anything from highlighting big problems to reminding the reader about an important due date) that I want to emphasize?

Once you have answered these questions, consider the strategies below as you begin to compose your communication. Certain tactics will likely be more relevant than others, depending on the type of communication, but each of these tips can help you get into the habit of more diplomatic writing as you move through college and into your career. 

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Services like this “ToneCheck” software, which bills itself as “Emotional Spellcheck for Email” are one option. But, really, can a computer program consider the intricate dynamics of workplace relationships more effectively than you? 

Strategies for Getting Diplomacy, Emphasis, and Tone Right

1. Remind Your Reader What’s in it for Them, Especially when Asking for Help

Rather than:
I’m bringing in a new analyst to work with you on this because the rest of the group is swamped. You’ll have to take the extra time to fill her in.

Write:
You’ll have a new analyst to work with on this, and, luckily, you will be able to train her on the way you'd like things to be done.

2. Acknowledge the Work of Others as Often as You Can 

Rather than:
I need this by 5pm tomorrow.

Write:
I imagine you’re just as swamped as we are, but in order to move forward, we really need this by 5pm tomorrow.

3. Ask (when you can afford to hear no) and Thank Your Reader

Rather than:
You need to stay until the meeting ends, which will likely be around 7:00 p.m.

Write:
Would it be possible for you to stick around until this meeting ends, which will likely be around 7:00 p.m.? I’d really appreciate it.

4. Avoid Passive Aggressiveness at all Times

Rather than:
It seems that reading the document I sent that outlined the instructions wasn’t a priority amidst all of the other very important work you had to do, so please let me explain it here, for the second time: The steps include…

Write:
The steps include…

5. Use Passive vs. Active Voice to Your Advantage

Active voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence performs the action. (John washes the car.) Passive voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence has an action performed upon it, him, or her. (The car is washed by John.)

Want to emphasize accomplishments or work completed? Use active voice.

My department completed the project on time.
George, who works on my team, developed an incredible system to track users.

Want to deemphasize the person or the team? Use passive voice.

The project was not completed on time.
A system to track users was not developed, unfortunately.

6. If You’re Pointing out Mistakes of Flaws, Be Sure to Explain Why Behaviors, Actions, or other Issues are Problematic—It’s Often More Effective (and having it in writing might be valuable down the line)

Rather than:
You’ve arrived late to our one-on-one meetings the past three weeks, which is unacceptable.

Write:
You’ve arrived late to our one-on-one meetings the past three weeks, which is unacceptable.As you know, I often have meetings scheduled throughout the day, and so this throws my schedule off. Further, while I’m sure you don’t intend this, arriving late shows a lack of professionalism, which will undoubtedly hurt your career in the long run.

7. Talk to those Who Frustrate You by Using “I” Statements

Rather than:
Your inability to show any enthusiasm about these projects is driving me crazy.

Write:
It’s difficult for me to maintain momentum and rally support here for projects when others show a blatant lack of interest.

8. Depending on Your Audience, and How Much Information They Need, Cut Extranous Information and Use Short Sentences for Emphasis

Rather than:
Considering the breadth and depth of this project, as well as our desire to complete it in a way that is most useful for you and practical for our own schedules, we’ve decided that extending the deadline would be an important next step.

Write:
We need more time to do this well. 

Note: It's crucial to consider your audience when deciding how much background information they will need.

9. Directly State What’s Important

One additional, minor consideration is…

Another primary concern is…

10. STOP YELLING AT ME (Avoid Caps Lock)

Rather than:
It’s very important that you COME PREPARED TO THE MEETING.

Write:
It’s very important that you come prepared to the meeting.

But do consider other ways to emphasize importance.

Use these strategies as you work to develop more effective, appropriate business communication, and, eventually, they will become second nature in your writing. In the meantime, this printable checklist can be tacked up by your desk as a guide and a reminder of these strategies. Any time you’re unsure of your tone, compare your draft to this list!

Your emails should make people feel like this:

email 1

Not like this:

email 22

Exercises

Considering the tactics above, write one-paragraph emails in response to the following scenarios.

  1. Your colleague Tina promised to send you a spreadsheet full of data that is central to a report you’re writing. She said she’d have it to you by Thursday, and today is Friday. Your own report is due Monday. Write Tina a brief email about this situation.
  2. You are interested in taking a week-long training class that you believe will help you perform your job more effectively. There is a small training budget within your company, but the only class being offered is on the other side of the country and would require flight and hotel costs in addition to the substantial tuition. Make the case for the money to your boss in an email.
  3. You were the hiring manager for a new position that opened up at your organization. After sifting through nearly fifty resumes, you chose to interview one outside candidate and one internal candidate named Joe. Both had similar experience and educational backgrounds, but you ultimately made a job offer to the external candidate due to the fact that she seemed to have more creative ideas about how the department could handle current issues, whereas Joe seemed to have little to offer. Email Joe explaining that he did not get the job, and offer him constructive criticism.

Each interaction in the business world is unique and nuanced. While the strategies above are not a one-size-fits-all solution, learning to ask questions about audience, purpose, and the emotions attached to a particular communication is key to diplomacy and striking the right tone over email. From there, the tips and strategies above will help you craft careful, effective communications as you increase your writing skills—and your credibility in the workplace.