Getting the tone right

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

People often tell me they get stick from colleagues for emails that are seen as too short, too direct or too brusque. I secretly cheer, but no, they want to know how to make them longer, softer, fluffier. This is a tricky one. However much you praise them for writing concisely and getting to the point, you can’t argue with the responses they’re getting, and you can’t just dismiss their concerns.

Meanwhile across the Channel, some non-native English speakers working for a British company in Europe delighted me by asking how to make their emails less polite, how to cut down on the “please could you kindly” and “I would be extremely grateful if you would be good enough to …” sort of thing. They don’t use such extravagant phrases in their own language, but they were dutifully emulating their British counterparts.

So how to arrive at a happy medium? How to be courteous without being unctuous? Here’s one approach: think about your reader and imagine you’re talking to them. Try to make a genuine personal connection, without frills or flounces, with a simple scene-setter and a warm sign-off. Sleep on the email. Show it to a friend. And finally, trust your own judgment and don’t lose your head while all around you are being fluffy.