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Did you know that the tone of your email says more than the words?

Since we’re all communicating more and more by email these days due to COVID, we thought it might be a good idea to chat about how powerful (both for good and evil) the tone of those email messages can be. Many of us shoot off dozens of emails every day without a second thought as to how they may be interpreted. If it makes sense in our heads and fingers as we tap it out, what’s the problem?

The problem comes when the person on the receiving end opens it, reads it, and is left with a completely different feeling than was your intention when you hit send. People will remember the emotional tone of an email far longer and more vividly than the words.

Let’s start with defining what ‘tone’ is when it comes to written communication. When you read a message, the way it’s structured, the type of language that’s used, the punctuation and phrasing all work together to fill in the blanks around the actual words, conveying the meaning or intention meant by the sender.


When we communicate face-to-face that meaning or intention comes from the non-verbal cues or body language of the speaker. The actual tone of their voice, their gestures, their facial expressions, and posture all help us interpret the meaning behind what they’re saying.


Of course, with email, we don’t have those non-verbal cues to rely on, so we have to imagine their intentions based on clues in their writing. As with most situations, in the absence of information humans tend to imagine the worst-case scenario. So, saying something in-person to a colleague can generate a completely different reaction than saying the exact same thing in an email, because they don’t see the friendly expression on your face or your relaxed body language.


When our insecurities get the best of us and make us doubt ourselves, what normally wouldn’t bother us can seem like the last straw, especially these days when people’s nerves are frazzled by stress, and the uncertainties of the world blur our objectivity.


Here are a couple of tips to consider before you hit send that may help fend off any misinterpretations or misunderstandings ahead of time.


1. How you begin and end a message is important

Use a greeting, even if it’s a simple “Hi Joe”. A message without a greeting comes off cold and abrupt because the simple warmth and politeness of acknowledging the person receiving your words is missing. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s office and rattle off a piece of information without first acknowledging them in some way, even if it’s just a nod of your head or a smile. That simple line of greeting is your ‘smile’ and will make the recipient far more receptive to your message.


The same goes for how you sign off. No matter how serious the news may be, it’s in your own best interests to encourage the lines of communication to remain open. Invite them to let you know if they have any questions or concerns. Be warm and respectful, even in a more formal setting. There is nothing wrong with skipping the usual email signature line and adding something a bit more human. It’s a far more effective way to get people to work ‘with’ you.


2. Reread the message aloud to yourself first

This may feel a little weird in the beginning, but one of the best things you can do is to actually take the time and read through your email out loud (because silently allows your brain to make unconscious adjustments) as if you were sitting across from them delivering the information. Not only will you discover if there are missing words, weird sentence structure, or grammatical mistakes, you will also get a much better feel for ‘how’ the message is coming off. The tone will be more apparent because you will feel it as you speak.


3. Always include the ‘why’

You may feel like the reason behind your message is obvious, but it may not be depending on the person’s state of mind, recent experiences, distractions, etc. when they read it. It’s Communications 101 to make sure you include the reason the information is important. Is it a change in operation that’s tied to a strategic objective? Is it a request for information that will ultimately help you serve your clients better? Whatever the motivation for the message, it will be met with more engagement if you can clearly state what that motivation is. And if you can’t, maybe you should rethink why you’re sending the message in the first place.


4. Try not to use formatting for emphasis

Although we live in the age of social media and have learned to SHOUT at people in all caps, the less bolding, underlining, and use of any other kind of formatting to make a point, the better. It’s like hammering a nail with a sledgehammer. It’s just too much. And can come off annoying at best and condescending at worst. Your language should make the point, so keep the bolding to headings only, if necessary.


5. Use positive words because language matters

It’s difficult to escape the negative language around us these days, so one of the best things we can do is clean up our own backyards so to speak. We’re pretty sure you can relate to how a negative conversation can drag you down to its level pretty quickly, no matter how good you may have felt before it began. The same is true when you open an email full of negative words and sentences. You feel your energy being sucked out of you as you read it. And it will likely leave you feeling bummed out or angry, neither of which is a state that will lead to much positive progress. The negative stuff can be taken personally and out of context far too easily, so try to spot where those downer words or phrases show up and flip them into an objective fact or an opportunity for improvement.


“We cannot control the way people interpret our ideas or thoughts, but we can control the words and tones we choose to convey them. Peace is built on understanding, and wars are built on misunderstandings. Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words.”

Suzy Kassem

©2019 by Compass Leadership.