Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Ask Mint | The right tone in business communication
V.R. Narayanaswami

Emotion?does?have?a?place in business communication, except in letters that say “This is a computer-generated letter".

Here is the closing part of a personal letter. Can you comment on the tone of the communication? “Just got back home after a wonderful weekend with your family. The freedom of the countryside, the scenic beauty, and such pleasant weather: these were unforgettable. And the delicious eats we shared. But I shall be failing in my duty if I do not take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to your parents who spared no pains to extend their hospitality to us in full measure during our stay there."

Midway through, the tone has changed from friendly and casual to stiff and formal. The last sentence is long and contrived, and the warmth of the first part has given way to a ritual chant.

Tone can be defined as the attitude adopted by a communicator towards the listener and to the subject he is talking about. To set the right tone for your message, you need to look at three aspects of the communication.

The very first step is to understand your audience. A good writer will match his writing to the level of the reader. The opening part of the message should convey to the reader why it is important to him, and why he should read and act upon it. It is the tone that persuades him or her to read on.

This brings us to the second aspect to be considered. The language you use in a letter to a senior manager will differ from that you use to address a dealer or vendor. Remember that senior businesspersons who make decisions for companies will be hard-pressed for time, and will appreciate receiving messages which are concise and focused. Use your discretion with regard to sentence length. Simple sentences are best, but if two ideas have to go together, arrange the clauses in such a way that the emphasis falls on the more important point.

Consider the reader’s level of competence in the language, and construct your sentences to match it. It will be insulting to write a letter in schoolboy language to the executives at the top echelons of your company, though similar language may be appropriate when writing to your vendors.

There is some doubt about the use of contractions such as “we’ve", “you’re", “there’s", “isn’t". According to some, these contractions can add to the friendly tone of the message, but some others feel that they ought not to be used in any business communication. Though most rulebooks say the third person is to be used in official communication, in practice, the use of “I", “we", and “you" can create a friendly tone in the message; they further help you to avoid passive?forms,?which tend to make the message sound insincere.

When you have doubts about the style you have to use, look at the company’s practice. If senior executives of your company generally use a particular style of writing, you could emulate them.

The third characteristic of good business writing is confidence. The reader should feel that you know what you are talking about, and that you will be able to deliver what you are promising. Look at this job application: the resume itself is a factual listing of personal data and may not carry a tone. But look at this sentence from the cover letter. “I hope and trust that you will find my qualifications and experience, though in a related field, suited to the job you have advertised. It shall be my constant endeavour to rise to your expectations and carry out my duties sincerely and to the satisfaction of my superiors." It is obvious that this applicant lacks confidence and self-assurance. He could have written more confidently, “My qualifications match your job specifications", or “You can reach me at 2442345", or “I shall be happy to present myself for an interview". In these sentences,?the applicant shows he is ready for the next step in the process of recruitment.

If the tone of a message is to be friendly, the writer should avoid language that carries bias against any group: bias that is related to gender, age, ethnicity or physical disadvantage. If the CEO you are addressing is a woman, and your message is oriented to a male recipient, that can be embarrassing as well as damaging to the business.

The right tone in business communication should display friendliness without familiarity, confidence without condescension and courtesy without affectation.

The message should reflect the writer’s personality and should at the same time be tailored to the reader’s competence and position.

V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

Comments can be sent to

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout