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Lesson 5: Setting the Tone

In this lesson, we’ll be discussing how to establish the proper tone in business writing and why it’s important.


  • To discuss the importance of setting the correct tone in business writing.
  • To identify different techniques which we can use to set the right tone.

Choosing the correct tone for your business letter can either make your reader feel like you’re a good person to do business with and likewise, failing to do so can completely alienate your reader who in this case, holds some power over whether your business is successful or not. In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the two deciding factors when it comes to what kind of tone to use for your business documents or letters.

1. Identify the audience.

While in general, the tone of business documents should be direct-to-the-point, it’s still important to vary the tone depending on who you’re addressing the business document to. If, for example, you’re writing a letter or report addressed to your boss, it should definitely be written in a more cordial language than if you’re writing an e-mail inquiry to your colleague. If you keep the language too casual, you run the risk of offending your boss. Likewise, if you write to your colleague in a manner that is too formal, they might take this as you not acknowledging them as your equals.

With business letters to clients it’s very important that you’re respectful but confident—you should sound like you know what you’re doing; this will convince them to do business with you. Just as well, if you’re writing to your subordinates, you should be sure to convey authority without being rude; your subordinates are part of your team and help your business function.

2. Decide on the subject matter.

Another thing which comes into play when deciding what tone to use in your business writing is the subject matter of your text—what is your document talking about? Are you writing to convey news? If so, is it good or bad news? Are you writing to make a suggestion? To apologize? Are you writing to implement new rules and regulations?

In any case, your tone should follow the suit of your subject matter.

When conveying news, make sure that your tone is straightforward but positive—even if the news isn’t necessarily pleasing. This is important to sustain morale. For example, if you are going to deliver a report to your stockholders that this year your company didn’t do so well financially, make sure to report all the facts but to end on a hopeful note; mention your plans for improvement.

When making proposals, it’s important that you don’t make the mistake of coming off too demanding. Remember that you’re making suggestions, not giving commands. Here you can use buffer devices like “I think” or “we feel that it might” when conveying opinions so that you indicate that you’re open to suggestions or modifications by the other party involved.

If the text you’re writing aims to advertise a product or promote an event, make sure that you don’t over-sell the product. Simply talk about the product realistically and note down its different advantages—when writing this kind of business document, there is more room for your tone to be conversational because your aim is to talk about the product without talking about things in a manner that is too technical.

If you’re writing about rules and regulations, it’s best to be very firm and matter-of-fact. This will emphasize the need for these regulations and help people take these regulations seriously. However, you have to be careful not to come off too intimidating. You must be serious but firm.

In business writing, these two factors always balance out—one cannot be without the other. Take both of these into consideration every time that you draft a business document. They will tell you what tone is appropriate for you to employ.

In this lesson, we focused on the two main factors which determine the appropriate tone to use in business writing. These were identifying the audience and deciding on your subject matter. These make it easier to decide how to go about writing your business documents and help you convey your desired message.

Next we’ll be discussing political correctness in business writing. This is very important because it allows you to speak fairly and allows your clients to see that your business is progressive. Furthermore, it keeps you from offending anyone—whether it be your boss, clients, colleagues or subordinates.



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