Four Tips to Fine-Tune Your Tone

Four Tips to Fine-Tune Your Tone

How many times have you heard, “I didn’t like the tone in that e-mail,” or, “That was a snarky Facebook comment?”

Digital communication saturates today’s professional world both in and out of the office. From emails to texting, Slacking, Tweeting, messaging on LinkedIn or commenting on Facebook, there’s no escaping it.  Despite this, we haven’t shaken the fact that human beings primarily communicate through highly nuanced nonverbal cues.

Any nonverbal cues – a knowing smile, laugh, wink or playful tone of voice – that the sender intends to communicate in a written message will likely be lost in transit (despite the use of emojis). The reader is left to fill a message’s faceless gaps with his or her own imagination.

According to research from Syracuse University, people are likely to interpret emails in one of two ways: neutral or negative. Essentially, people assume the worst. In today’s sea of digital content and incessant messaging, one thing is clear – a poorly written message can cause anything from a mildly awkward mishap to a major misunderstanding.

To navigate this potential minefield, read on for tips on how to humanize your email tone.


People are individuals, and one formula will not work for everyone. When it comes to cultivating a professional tone, sometimes it is best to start formal and then follow the receiver’s lead. For example, if you start with “Dear Ms. Avery Smith” and she responds with two sentences and no greeting, it’s okay to follow suit.


Generally, you wouldn’t march into a co-worker’s office, give a robotic report and march out without a proper “good morning.” The same applies to written communication. To humanize what can be taken as a cold exchange, take a few extra seconds to write “I hope you had a good weekend,” “good morning” or “thank you for your time” at the beginning or end of the message. While brief, this extra step will go a long way to soften the tone.

Skip the Sarcasm  

While a good joke or sarcasm can help lighten the mood in a face-to-face situation, it can easily be misunderstood over email. In written communication there is high potential to misconstrue a humorous attempt as an insensitive remark or insult, potentially leading to unnecessary tension and office strife. Even if the sender is confident in the clarity of his or her message, remember that both context and nonverbal cues are absent in written interactions. It may be best to save the joke for later!

Don’t Forget Face-to-Face

Even if communication between individuals seems smooth in writing, nothing can replace talking face-to-face or engaging in a phone conversation. Whether it’s a status update meeting or a half hour to connect over coffee or tea, these personal interactions build mutual understandings that carry over to written communication.

While smart phones and the Internet have fundamentally changed business communications, taking the extra time to think about how your message could be interpreted will go a long way in building rapport.

Angela Kim is an intern in Stratacomm’s Detroit office.

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