Skip to content

The right tone for a business email

As the primary form of workplace communication, email is essential for connecting with colleagues, business partners and clients. Whether you’re pitching a business proposal, instructing your team or managing customer enquiries, your emails need to hit the mark. This means knowing not only what to say but how to say it.

The dangers of over-formality

A lot of us are taught early on to use formal language when writing, and informal language when speaking. This black-and-white approach is problematic! It misses the nuances of real-world communication.

In a business context, you might think that formality is a way to demonstrate professionalism or respect. But fact, writing in an overly formal style – with long, complex sentences and big words – doesn’t make you sound more professional or intelligent. It just gets in the way of comprehension and creates a disconnect between you and your reader.

Write to build connections

We’re social animals and that means relationships are a vital part of effective communication. Your reader is much more likely to open, read and act on your message if they feel a connection. After all, your reader is a human being, so relate to them on that level.

Personalising your emails is one way to immediately connect with your reader. Always address your recipient by name if you know it. ‘Dear [First Name]’ is a solid greeting. ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ may be too casual for an introduction to a new business associate, but they’re fine for people you know and work with more closely.

They could also be used to greet customers if that fits your brand. For example, a cosmetics company marketed at Gen Z may start emails with ‘Hi’, but that would not be appropriate for an ultra-luxury hotel addressing high-net-worth guests.

You can also build rapport by writing in a warm and friendly tone. Consider the difference between ‘You are welcome’ and ‘I’m happy to help!’ The first sounds like a template response, written by an organisation, not a person. The second is much more personable and therefore much more engaging.

In cases where the content of the message is less positive – for instance, if you’re turning down a work opportunity or disagreeing with a colleague – be polite, sincere and appreciative of your recipient’s time and effort.

Take a look at these two emails:

To whom it may concern,
I am writing to invite you to the forthcoming leadership conference organised by Corporation X. To be held at the Convention Centre on the 4th of November this year, the flagship event will unite changemakers to expound on the importance of finding synergies and disrupting the industry in an era of rapid transformation. Kindly RSVP by return email at your earliest convenience.
Mr David Sims

Now see how much better this is:

Dear John,
I’m thrilled to invite you to our upcoming leadership conference on business strategies for a changing industry.
Date: November 4, 2023
Location: Convention Centre
You can find all the details here. [attached/hyperlinked].
Please reply to let us know if you can attend by October 4, 2023.
It promises to be a great event and I very much hope to see you there.
Kind regards,

Let’s break down why one email is more effective than the other:

Version One Version Two
Stuffy, impersonal greeting Personalised greeting
Formal words and jargon Simple language
A block of text with long sentences Short, spaced-out sentences. Key information formatted for easy reading.
Unclear call to action with no deadline Clear call to action with specific deadline
Impersonal sign-off Warm yet professional sign-off
No emotion An upbeat tone with emotive words such as ‘thrilled’
Sounds as though it was written by an organisation Sounds as though it was written by a person

Remember, people receive a lot of emails a day and usually skim to save time. They won’t want to read or respond to an unnecessarily long-winded email that sounds generic, boring or pretentious.

Clarity above all

Letting your personality shine is a good thing, but there are still some basic rules to follow for clarity. Even if you’re aiming for a less formal tone, always write in full and grammatically correct sentences. There’s no place for discriminatory or offensive language, and it’s also best to avoid jokes, colloquialisms and cultural references that may not be understood.

And if you’re still unsure, ask yourself how you would talk to your reader face-to-face. Imagine that conversation and let that guide you.