Striking the Right Tone


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

December 11, 2019

Striking the Right Tone

“Effective communication helps to keep the team working on the right projects with the right attitude.” 

—Alex Langer

Workplace writing should focus on what can be done, not what can’t. Even in a bad situation, a voice that focuses on the positive rather than on the negative helps keep business moving forward. 

How can I sound informed?

You can sound informed by stating your position objectively, considering both pros and cons, and using concessions and qualifiers.

Don't Say

What do you think? I’m pretty sure the scrubber system will be worth it for you. 

Do Say

While the scrubber system is more costly than alternatives, its benefits warrant the cost. When the scrubber is fully operational, the power plant will exceed the EPA’s current clean-air standards.

How can I sound positive?

Focus on solutions rather than problems, on successes rather than failures. Say what can be done instead of what cannot.

Don't Say

If you don’t trash those cheap oxygen suits, you’ll never pass the OSHA inspection!

Do Say

To protect our undercoaters, we should purchase OSHA-approved oxygen suits.

How can I offer constructive criticism?

Balance discussion of weaknesses with praise of strengths. Also, direct criticism to the topic, not personalities.

Don't Say

Your bid was rejected because it lacked overall value. Better luck next time.

Do Say

Though your bid was competitive on cost, another bid provided better overall value.

Can I use humor?

When writing to close colleagues about everyday issues, you can use humor that does not denigrate anyone. However, remember that even private communications can become public. When writing to supervisors, clients, or employees, avoid humor, which is often misinterpreted.

Don't Say

When guests turn into squatters, we can’t give you their room. You wouldn’t want to share a bed, would you?

Do Say

We apologize that we cannot provide your reserved room, but we can offer you a free upgrade in compensation.


Play the Editor!

Copy the writing samples with poor tone into a document and revise them to achieve a positive but appropriate tone. (Scroll down to see our advice and recommendations.)

  1. Are you fed up with getting duped by non-profits that spend more on administrative salaries than the services they claim to provide? Avoid getting scammed and give to Literacy Returns to support programs for adult literacy. 
  2. While clients seem to appreciate your thorough knowledge of our operations here, you have to improve your manners: (1) Don’t roll your eyes and slam things around when the computer is slow; (2) Listen to clients’ concerns CALMLY—do not rush them; and (3) STOP snapping your dang gum!
  3. Next week Tuesday is our Student/Parent Visitation Day—one of our most important public-relations events of the year. DON’T FORGET to make the most of it by LOOKING SHARP, giving professional presentations, welcoming everyone, answering questions, and ENCOURAGING ENROLLMENT!!!

Get More Support

Explore your Write for Business Guide and past eTips to find more support for writing with concision, clarity, and authority.


Editor's Recommendation

1. Rather than focus on the negatives of philanthropy in general, focus on the positives of the organization and its programs:

Since 2014, your contributions have helped more than 500,000 adults develop the literacy they need to get jobs and stay healthy. With your continued support, Literacy Returns can open more adult literacy programs in underserved areas, both rural and urban. Read about our A+ CharityWatch rating to learn how your donations go directly to supporting our programs.

2. When you need to offer criticism, make it constructive by balancing the discussion of weaknesses with praise of strengths. Also, direct criticism to the topic, not personalities. Check to see if your revision achieves these goals while also avoiding ALL CAPS and other choices that "shout" at readers.

Your knowledge of operations here remains unmatched. No one is as suited to find the right answer to customer inquires as you. Remember that our customers also deserve patience and respect in our responses. Since they don't have the same insider knowledge as us, we should listen calmly and give them time to communicate their questions and concerns. In addition, please review the company policy about chewing gum while talking to customers.

3. Though this email provides helpful advice, the use of ALL CAPS and exclamation points creates a shouting tone. Removing these issues and using the word “Please” would improve the voice of this message.

Next week Tuesday is our Student/Parent Visitation Day—one of our most important public-relations events of the year. Please remember to dress well (business casual attire works), prepare a brief presentation, welcome everyone, answer questions, and encourage enrollment!