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Tone: Not Just What You Say, But HOW You Say It




A few months ago, I was doing research for a workshop. As I was combing through the internet for examples, I came across a blog post with a strange tone. The title claimed to have the best examples of the specific document format I was looking for. Once I started reading, I became very confused.


At first, this blog seemed like a serious, professional resource. But as I read on, it felt more and more sarcastic. It became very difficult to tell which comments were meant to be jokes and which were genuine praise or criticism of the example documents they shared.



Sarcasm is inherently difficult to convey in writing, and not the only type of confusing tone we encounter. Think about a time you got a "sharp" email from someone you didn't know or read instructions that downplayed how hard something was to do.


These moments of mismatched tone and content can leave us feeling disoriented and frustrated as readers. In the case of this blog, I finished reading unsure of what I was supposed to take seriously and what I was meant to ignore. As a result, I no longer trust that writer and am not likely to seek out or share their information in the future.



Why Tone Matters

You may not be writing a saucy blog, but the tone of your writing still impacts how your audience feels about you and the content you’re sharing.


Take a look at each of the examples below and think about how they make you feel:


Four text examples: 1. Program participants MUST complete ALL the intake forms before they can be served. An appointment will be scheduled once all forms are submitted.   2. Complete all the intake forms as soon as possible. We will schedule your first appointment once we have your information.    3. We need to know a little bit about you before we can start working together. Please submit all the intake forms as soon as possible. Once we have your intake forms, a case manager will call you within one week to schedule your first appointment.   4. We know - paperwork sucks! But we need to know about you before we can work together. The sooner you complete these forms, the sooner we can schedule your first appointment.


Each example has the same objective and audience. But reading each is an emotionally different experience. Which one makes you feel most respected? Supported? Scolded?


The words, sentence structures, and formatting all contribute to your experience as a reader.



Creating the Right Tone

The first step is to think about the circumstances surrounding the information you’re sharing. Many of us are taught that having a formal or academic tone will make the reader trust us more, but this can actually make our writing feel inaccessible or condescending.


While there are times when a more formal tone is appropriate, carefully consider the audience for the specific information you’re writing about and how you want your audience to feel when they read it.


If you’re working in a challenging context, show compassion and empathy. If there are consequences related to the information, explain them clearly without being doom-and-gloom.


Language to Avoid

We might write “you should” or “remember to” with helpful intentions, but it can feel reprimanding to the reader. Phrases like these can reinforce power imbalances and imply that the reader is doing something wrong by not already knowing this information. You can often convey the same idea by simply removing that part of the sentence.


Similarly, using absolutes like “always” and “never” can create a feeling of failing before you’ve started. When sharing instructions or advice, you can create a more helpful and positive tone by explaining what success looks like, rather than just telling your reader what not to do.


What to Say Instead

Using “you” to talk directly to your reader is a great way to connect the information with their lives. This is most effective when explaining steps someone needs to take or describing services.


On the flip side, when sharing negative or urgent information, such as rules and consequences, using “you” can make the reader feel attacked. Instead, use neutral and direct language. Including the rationale behind rules goes a long way in helping people understand expectations.


Here are some examples for comparison:


Two text examples: 1. You must call the office if you are sick or you may be removed from the program. 2. We have limited space in this program. If you miss a session, we may think you are not interested and give your spot to someone else. To avoid this, please call the office when you are sick.

You can also convey urgency or importance through formatting. Try bolding key phrases, including icons that draw the reader's eye, and using clear organization and spacing so important information doesn’t get lost.


Applying This to Your Work

Notice the tone in things you read. How does it make you feel? How does the author feel about you? Document what you like for reference and inspiration. Use these examples to guide your writing. Mimic the language, structure, and design of things that convey the tone you’re going for.


Getting the right tone doesn’t happen by accident. With mindful practice, you’ll solidify your voice as a writer and creating the tone you want will become second nature.


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