banner.gif (20700 bytes)

[letter]Tone In Your Letters

Why is tone in a letter important?

The tone of your letter will project your attitude to the reader. Although you can't hear it, tone in a letter has much the same effect as it has when you speak to someone. What's your reaction when someone speaks to you in a cold tone? Do you tune out of the conversation; pay more attention to the tone than the content; or walk away? Readers do much the same thing. When the tone of a letter is cold or harsh, many times readers will put down the letter and pick up the telephone.

How do you create a professional, compassionate tone?
There are several different techniques that you can use to create a professional, compassionate tone, depending on the content of your letter--

Use "you" and active voice to focus on the reader.

One of the worst tone offenders in government writing happens when we refer to people as if they are inanimate objects. Nothing turns people off more than being spoken to as if they were just a number. In the example below, the only two changes to the sentence are the use of--
  1. "you"; and
  2. active voice.
Can you feel the difference in the tone?
The leg injury is disabling, therefore, the payee is entitled to benefits.We found that you have a disabling leg injury, therefore, you are entitled to benefits

Sympathetic Opening

A sympathetic opening should be used only when appropriate. For instance, if you are writing to a recent widow who is asking questions about benefits, you may want to start the letter by saying: "We are sorry to hear about the death of your husband." If, however, this is the fourth letter you've sent to the same widow, don't just add the line by rote.


If you are writing to correct a mistake your agency made, you should start out by apologizing for the error. Or, at the least, acknowledge that a mistake was made. And please do it in active voice.

An error was made in calculating your refund.We are sorry. We made a mistake when we calculated your refund.

A sympathetic opening should be no more than a line or two. The sympathetic opening is important, but it should not bury the main message.

Delivering Bad News

When delivering bad news, it helps to temper the situation by prefacing the statement with a term like--
  • We regret
  • We're sorry
  • Unfortunately

Example:  Unfortunately, we cannot approve your application.

In each situation, you must determine which term you find more comfortable. Is it necessary to deliver bad news in this manner? No. But it sets a tone that may keep your customer reading. And if you think about it, this is the way we usually handle things in person. In person we frequently say, "I'm sorry but you don't qualify for this benefit." But many times in letters we just jump right in with, "You are not qualified for this benefit." Which version would you rather receive?