Writing Email
Illustration by Neil Webb

Writing Email

with Judy Steiner-Williams
lynda.com's PMI® Program
This course qualifies for 1.00 PDUs towards maintaining PMI® certification. Learn More

Video: Using the right tone

Every email you send has a tone.

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Watch the Online Video Course Writing Email
1h 13m Appropriate for all Apr 01, 2014

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Discover the secrets to writing powerful emails your colleagues will read and answer by crafting your message and delivery. In this short course, author and business writing professor Judy Steiner-Williams shows you how to write emails for maximum readability and impact. Discover how to craft a compelling opening, how to message the right people at the right time, and how to leverage etiquette to use email as one of many communications tools.

This course qualifies for 1 Category A professional development unit (PDU) through lynda.com, PMI Registered Education Provider #4101.

Topics include:
  • Using email as a communication tool
  • Understanding the right time and the right tone to strike
  • Crafting strong subject lines and messages
  • Respecting confidentiality
  • Copying and bcc'ing
  • Including attachments

  • The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
Judy Steiner-Williams

Using the right tone

Every email you send has a tone. I think you misinterpreted the tone. Have you ever said that to anyone or has someone responded to you with that statement? Tone. What is it? Well, when we speak, we have the tone of our voices. We detect sincerity, sarcasm, concern, and humor, for example. Voice inflections combined with body language help indicate tone. But we don't have the actual voice inflections or body language in emails.

In fact, tone easily gets lost or misinterpreted in email messages. So even though those written words alone don't have a tone, we always read tone into them and that creates a problem. Tone, whether face to face or in an email, is something that needs to be analyzed. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, lost accounts, and anger result when the sender doesn't carefully analyze that email tone. What types of things do readers pick up on in trying to determine an email's tone? First, the reader will analyze their relationship with the writer.

Do I know the person has a sarcastic sense of humor? Have I worked with the person long enough to know that his directness is because he's so busy? Is there already friction or competition between me and the writer so I immediately infer a negative tone? After analyzing the sender, we then look at the actual words used. The professionalism of the message, the punctuation used, and the formatting such as bold or capitals. One of the first rules of email tone is not to type in all capitals.

That results in a screaming at me tone. Also marking words in bold and red highlights make emotional statements. The reader may feel herself getting defensive. Combine those mechanical emphasis techniques with excessive punctuation marks. I hope you realize that I waited an hour for you to show up to carpool where were you? When will you have your report ready? You need to stop by my office immediately! One exclamation point or question mark is enough.

To indicate that you are exclaiming or questioning. More than one tends to make the message sound demanding or accusatory. Maybe the writer's intent wasn't to scream or demand or offend. But intent and result can't be separated when the reader doesn't hear voice tone or see body language. Will using the emoticon, the little smiley or surprised faces, for example, help you achieve the tone you want. Again, think about your reader in determining if those are appropriate. I know a business person who uses those in the messages she sends to her subordinates.

They, in turn, feel comfortable using them when they send her replies. Even if your company culture uses them, they should be used sparingly. If you are sending an email while you are upset or you aren't sure what tone you're projecting. Type the email, let it sit in the draft box for a while, and then reread it aloud. You may be surprised at how it sounds. A simple please or thank you can take a blunt hurry up and do it now message to one with a more positive tone. Because we quickly write and send emails, we may not even think about the tone with online messages.

Or we may feel more comfortable making demands or being rude online than we would face to face. By thinking about the tone issues before you send your message. By reading your message aloud and by monitoring the words and symbols you use. You'll reduce the number of times you have to say I think you misinterpreted the tone. And you will more likely be perceived as a tactful, sincere, professional person.

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