Role & Tone

Role and tone are important communication variables to consider; they often influence one another and, along with other communication variables, influence your choice of content and medium for the communication.


Role deals with each communication participant’s position in a group or an organization: chair, volunteer, assistant, supervisor, co-worker, etc.  Each group or organization will have certain explicit and implicit communication expectations attached to particular roles. For effective communication, you need to be aware of and communicate appropriately given your own and your audience’s roles.

For a brief example of the importance of roles, consider how you would phrase a simple request—a request to view a document, for example—of a supervisor, peer, and person whom you supervise in your organization.

View the following video, which offers two versions of a situation.  Stop the video at the brief pause and identify specific, ineffective communication strategies which could have been more effective with fuller acknowledgement of roles and the communication expectation assumed for each role.  After the pause, watch the second scenario, and identify specific, more effective strategies that were made with fuller acknowledgement of roles.


Tone is the way in which you express your message.  Tone in written communication is akin to tone of voice in spoken communication. It’s the attitude toward your information and audience that your audience perceives as they read, view, or listen to your communication.  Understanding your audience, purpose, and role can help you determine the tone to strive for to be effective in different situations.  Appropriate tone in professional communication can range from formal to informal, serious to slightly humorous, depending on the communication situation.  But no matter what nuanced tone you strive for, overall tone in most cases of professional communication should apply the three P’s.

The 3 P’s of Tone:

  • Professional: Clear and easy-to-understand language and sentence structure, appropriate to the audience and situation (usually straightforward, direct language in Western cultures; not overly formal or casual)
  • Personal: Directed to and cognizant of a specific audience’s characteristics and needs; often uses “you” to engage the audience
  • Positive: Language that is confident, constructive, and respectful; language that contains more positive than negative phrases

The following video offers a comprehensive discussion of portions of a 2010 email in terms of tone.  (Note that the author extracts relevant portions of the email and offers them in the video; you do not need the full, original email.)

Another useful explanation of tone, with examples, is Purdue University’s Writing Lab handout on Tone in Business Writing.

Tone can “make or break” a communication.  Using an appropriate tone, one which respects your audience’s needs and is appropriate to your purpose, is a powerful way to engage your audience and enhance their focus on the content of your message.

Try It

Revise the following sentences, applying the three P’s.

  1. We are unable to process your request immediately; it takes at least three business days, due to the high volume of requests.
  2. An issue has arisen with various departments and employees overstaying lunch hours.
  3. Hey, Tom!  Congrats on being my new boss.  In your new boss-role, did they tell you which forms to use for our meetings?
  4. You did not provide all of the information required on the application for flex time; therefore, it is being returned to you to complete.

Always consider your own role, the roles of your primary and secondary audiences, and your purpose in order to determine appropriate content and tone.