Setting the tone for 2015

Two weeks into the new year, are your holding strong to your resolutions? Or do you already sense your firm grip on change starting to relax?

Well, wherever you are with working out or eating better or being kinder to strangers, we want to talk about a topic that’s likely not on the top of your list: writing your everyday correspondences (emails, memos, and the like) more cogently, more effectively, and less tensely.

This isn’t about making a resolution that you may or may not stick to. This is about adopting a best practice that will last if you follow a few simple precepts.***

Most simply, good communication, whether in business or between friends, is all about tone. Now, we aren’t going to drag you back to 11th-grade English class and discuss the definition of tone and how it’s used in Catcher in the Rye to establish Holden Caulfield’s character and wordview…we’re going to make it much more practical.


What’s the difference between these two emails?



I’m wondering about the status of the report. I thought we agreed that we’d be seeing the first draft yesterday. Maybe I misunderstood? Anyway, please let me know ASAP what the status is.




Good morning Felicia:

I bet this week is as crazy for you guys as it is for us—first quarter madness! I was wondering how close your team was to getting us the first draft of the report—we’re chomping at the bit on our end to get our hands on it so we can keep pushing the idea forward.

Just give me a heads up about when I can expect it so I can pass the word along to the team.

Stay warm up there!



Both, ostensibly, communicate the same thing: The request for a report that may be a bit late in delivery. But which one do you think is going to be more effective in getting the report into Bob’s hands? Which is going to motivate Felicia to show some initiative in ensuring Bob gets that report by the end of the day? If you said Option A, you may just be a sociopath and this blog can’t really help you. But probably you said B, and probably your reason would be something like “Well, it’s nicer.”

True, but it’s more than just “nice.” It does three very important things.

1)      It establishes a human connection. We’re all just slightly more than big insects scratching our way across this hardscrabble planet. We might as well recognize each other’s humanity and show some respect and decorum to the people with whom we communicate on a regular basis. Greetings should include the recipient’s first name, and the tone should make them feel as if you’re actually interacting with them, not just using them as a proxy to get something you want.

2)      It begins and ends with a statement about the other person. This is probably instinctive to none of us, but oh the goodwill it builds! Of course you’re writing this missive because you want something. . .but the best way to get what you want is actually to make the person who can get it to you feel better about this whole interaction. You can make a comment about their weather, about their workflow, about a holiday or a personal milestone you might know about (birthday, anniversary, etc.). It doesn’t have to be profound—the point is you’re showing that while you need something from this person, you’ve also taken the time to think about them and how they’re doing. And that small gesture counts for a lot, making you seem almost magnanimous in comparison to the other rude dolts they have to deal with all day.

3)      It avoids blame and establishes an ethos that “we’re in this together, working toward a common goal.” Chances are, you have to communicate with people who have missed deadlines, delivered a substandard product, or simply not met your expectations. Now, there are times when a hardline approach is appropriate and necessary. However, in most situations, the other person probably feels just as bad about the screw up as you do. What’s more, your contact person might be the go-between who had no control over the missed deliverable. But even if they did, they’re going to be more likely to rectify the situation quickly if they don’t feel blamed, shamed, and downtrodden. If you communicate why you need the finished product (in an exciting, hopeful way) and illuminate possibility rather than dwell on failure, your contact is going to feel more motivated to help you out and do everything they can to make things happen. You might enjoy gloating about “really sticking to it to them,” but are you still going to be gloating when your power trip caused them to drag their feet and further delay delivery by two or three more days?  


People often use the excuse of "nobody can read my tone in an email and so they took it the wrong way." Well, frankly, that's lame. With a little bit of effort on your part, you can dictate tone and, before long, make it a habit that becomes as natural as, well, checking email. The idea is to stop bulldozing through your own agenda and empathize, empathize, and empathize some more. Walk a mile in their shoes, employ the Golden Rule, all that stuff. And if you don’t want to do it because you don’t consider yourself a nice person, then do it because it works.

We’ll be honing our own communications skills at Treebird all year. We hope sharing some of our own learnings helps you as well.

Stay warm out there! 


***this blog doubles as Treebird staff professional development :) 


Patrick Kelly