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Your language and behavior is different while being at work in a professional manner rather than hanging out in the back yard with friends, or at least we hope it is. Part of that difference is in the language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what is called tone. We also recall being told, when we were very young, not to “use that tone of voice with me, Mister “. Just as the pitch and volume of one’s voice carry a difference in tone from street to business, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of tone in our writing. The tone, in turn, conveys our attitude toward our audience and our subject matter. Are we being frivolous or serious, casual or formal, sweet or stuffy? The choice of a single word can change the tone of a paragraph, even an entire essay.

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A writer’s tone is very important, as it conveys a particular message from you as the writer and likewise affects the reader in a particular way. Consequently, it can also affect how the reader receives the message you are communicating. In written composition, tone is often defined as what the author feels about the subject. (What the reader feels is the mood.) Tone is also sometimes confused with voice, which can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing. Tone and voice are two features of writing that go hand in hand to create the style for a piece of writing. The attitude and the personality — two other ways to describe these qualities — could also be said to blend into a flavor of writing. Whatever analogy you use, make a conscious decision about tone based on the purpose, the audience, and the desired outcome of your work.

Tone is established when the author answers a few basic questions about the purpose of the writing:

Why am I writing this?

Who am I writing it to?

What do I want the readers to learn, understand, or think about?

Using the appropriate tone in business writing is an important aspect of communicating the desired message and of achieving the desired results. When determining the appropriate tone to use, ask yourself why you are writing the document, who the audience is, and more importantly, what do you want done. When you know the answers to these questions, you will be able to identify and use the appropriate tone. The appropriate tone will help you to engage your reader and propel him or her to action.

The tone for most business writing should be formal, even though each company’s culture is obviously somewhat distinct. Even when you know the readers quite well, and almost certainly when you do not, the tone should be formal in most written business communication.

One exception to this guideline, for instance, would be e-mail messages you send to co-workers or others with whom you work closely when the message is sent in informal situations. Job position also plays a part in this; you might use a slightly different tone with your colleagues then you do with your boss, for example. If in doubt, let the communication style of others with whom you work be your guide.

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Your tone should be courteous and professional at all times, and it should convey strength and confidence. When you use a confident and courteous tone, readers are more likely to agree and accept the message you are conveying. However, you must not be overconfident, or arrogant, as they will most likely resent your request and be less inclined to comply.

Most readers can tell when someone is not being honest with them. You will be able to build greater trust with readers—and consequently, be able to accomplish more—if they know that they can believe what you say.

Always use appropriate language in business correspondence. Using appropriate language in the workplace is part of being a professional. In your business writing, you should refrain from using slang, bad grammar, or sloppy sentence constructions, and you should use correct punctuation and capitalization.

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It is important to point out that we use a slightly different tone depending on the type of business correspondence we are writing.

Awarding a promotion

Applying for a job position

Denying a request

Rejecting a job applicant

Declining a job offer

Apologizing to a customer for a mistake

Apologizing to a customer; unable to correct the mistake

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