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A few years ago, I was asked to transition in as Project Manager for Phase II of a large redesign project. For a bit of context, Phase I had not gone well, but we felt with some team changes, we could turn things around. As part of my preparation for the Phase II kickoff, I reviewed a lot of Basecamp posts from Phase I. I wanted to get a sense for the types of things being discussed and the overall communication style of the client. What I found surprised me.

The threads between the previous PM and the client point of contact would often start innocently enough but end up feeling very contentious. The previous PM (who I have nothing but a ton of respect for) had written replies to messages that seemed unnecessarily hostile, as did the client point of contact. Much of the hostility seemed to stem from simple miscommunication at first, which over time morphed into a pattern of counterproductive and combative messages.

Reading these messages with no context allowed me to see the picture clearly. Written communication had failed these two and likely soured verbal communication as well. In that moment, I realized just how much the tone in our written communication matter, even in run-of-the-mill messages to others.

To be sure, if we need to deliver bad or potentially sensitive news, a face to face meeting, video conference, or phone call should be the go-to. However, most of our daily communication is not specifically bad or good, and as a part of the digital industry, written communication saturates our day. The more we can do to improve our tone and ensure our messages are read as we intend, the better.

Tone is often referred to as professional or casual. However, as DPMs (or other digital professionals), we often need to balance the desire to be professional with the goal of building long-lasting relationships. Tone isn’t black or white, and there are many nuances to written communication that can impact how it is perceived.

Below are five ways I work to ensure my written communication is read in the way I intend. These are tactics I’ve picked up along my career, but I’d love to hear any tips you have in the comments section!

Note: having a project communication plan in place is a great way to ensure you're using a consistent tone, as well as getting the right messages to the right stakeholders at the right times.

Five Tips for Improving Tone in Written Communication

#1. Read your messages back to yourself

As you read the message back to yourself, your best bet is to envision the various ways your message could be interpreted by the recipient. I find it useful to first read it as you would if you were in a really bad mood. Once you hear how it comes across when it’s not read as you intended, see if there are words you can replace or additional explanations you can add that might make your intended tone clearer.

Read your messages back to yourself

Did I really mean to sound like that?

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#2. Have someone else read it

Reading your messages back to yourself is a great first step and probably sufficient on your more standard messages. Though, when you are writing a potentially sensitive email, there is no substitute for getting another pair of eyes on it. I do this often, and the difference it makes can be significant. The best way to know how someone may interpret your message is to have someone else read it.

#3. Don’t be afraid of the exclamation point

Much has been written about the tendency (especially among women) to overuse the exclamation point, but that shouldn’t scare someone away from using them judicially to indicate to the client or teammate where you want their focus and where the emphasis of the message is. I’m not saying every sentence should end with one; I am saying that exclamation points have gotten a bad rap from overuse. But just as it’s hard to read an email in all caps without imagining the person yelling at you, it’s hard to misinterpret the emphasis an exclamation point generates.

I have no doubt there are still skeptics out there, and the use of exclamation points is not above satire, but we use the punctuation and text styles (italics, bold, etc.) in a message as cues for how we should be reading and interpreting the message. For many people, “You did great!” will simply come across more enthusiastically than “You did great.”

Relax. It’s ok to use exclamation point.

Worth Checking Out: Dark Stories, Shared Light: A Women’s Month Panel Discussion

#4. Take a breather if something you are reading is annoying or angering you

It can be easy to hastily reply if you are annoyed by a comment someone sends your way, but taking a breather and returning with a clearer head could help you see it with a different perspective. Learning how to read others’ messages in a positive light is key to effective communication, as it allows you to craft a response that gives the benefit of the doubt rather than escalating a potentially volatile situation.

Written communication - take a breath

Calm down and take a breath before answering. You perceive things better with a clear mind and avoid escalating a volatile situation.

#5. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the pain or offer an apology when warranted

A simple “I’m sorry” or “I know this really stinks” can go a long way. I know there are people out there who believe apologizing can signal weakness or put you on unequal footing, but the reality is if you need to message a client or team member about something that’s gone wrong, empathy and recognition can make a big impact. you likely have some reason to apologize. Crappy project situations are usually the result of a lot of things, and I firmly believe it’s okay (and often best) to acknowledge that.

The last thing you want when delivering bad news to a client is them walking away feeling like you don’t care, don’t understand, or don’t think it matters. Put some compassion into tricky emails to give them better odds of being read as you’ve intended. The alternative may be a lot of unnecessary negative back and forth.

written communication - apologize

Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean that you are all wrong. It means that you care.

Now that I’ve given a high level overview of the tactics I use to improve my email tone, I’ll share some specific examples of how these tactics can make a difference.

Re-reading your own message

A visual designer shares an in-progress design they are working on in Slack. It looks great, but I start to wonder what made them decide to go with green for the accent color instead of blue. My first instinct might be to say:

“Why did you make that button green?”

A possible response to that question might be:

“Green is part of the palette too but if you hate it we can revisit.”

Not only did I not really get my question answered, but it seems like I may have annoyed the designer…or at least made them feel like they needed to defend their decision.

If I had read that simple message back in my head, I could have envisioned a scenario where the designer reads it as “Why did you make that button green?”, which may read like I’m upset with the choice or challenging the decision.

Realizing how it might be misinterpreted, I could rephrase to:

“This looks great! I’m curious what led you to make the button color green? I like it more than the blue, but I wasn’t expecting the change.”

And, hopefully with them seeing I am in favor the design, they’d be more likely to provide a response like:

“Glad you like it! I started with the blue, but it just wasn’t standing out enough next to the greys we are using. So I tried green and felt it worked better with the overall system.”

Oh, what a quick re-read can do.

Taking a beat before responding

Here’s a common type of message I may get from a client:

“We looked at the prototype, and we’re wondering what sort of effort it’d be to revert back to the navigation we tried a few weeks ago.”

My initial reaction is often “Ugh. We showed you that navigation 4 weeks ago and you didn’t like it! Why are we suddenly back to it after we’ve spent time on build-out?!” And if I get myself worked up enough, I may be tempted to reply with something like:

“It would be a large effort and something we cannot accommodate without additional budget. This current navigation had gained approval in the design phase, so reverting back now would be an enhancement.”

All of that may be technically true, but it also may be escalating a situation that doesn’t need it. If I send that message, it’ll probably annoy the client as I’m bringing in scope and enhancements and approvals when all they wanted to know is what sort of effort it is.

By taking a breather after seeing that message come in, I may later realize there are a lot of possible reasons for that question. Maybe another stakeholder saw the new prototype and realized they liked the old design they had seen better. And maybe my point of contact really does just want to understand what the effort would be in reverting it so they can communicate back to their team. They may not even want this change. With a calmer attitude, I could instead respond with:

“I talked to our developer and designer. It would likely take between 12-16 hours. I don’t believe that’s something we could accommodate in our current budget, but we can talk about that further if you decide you want to move forward with this change.”

When in doubt, answer the question that’s being asked, not all the hidden questions you think may exist. In this example in particular, just because a client inquires about something doesn’t automatically mean they want to see that change.

Having a second pair of eyes review; acknowledging pain and responsibility

We had an understanding with the client (or so we thought) that our project needed to launch on a Thursday, ahead of a big meeting they had on the books. Early in the week of launch, we learned the client had actually clarified that they wanted the launch to be Tuesday, but we missed that clarification. We had told them we could meet their deadline when we thought it was Thursday, but there was no way it’d be ready Tuesday. So my coworker drafted a message to send explaining for the first time it would not be done on Tuesday as the client hoped:

– “Thank you for clarifying when this needs to launch. We’re also excited to launch the updated site! Unfortunately, we won’t be able to launch until Thursday. Building out the additional page you asked for adds time to the process. I completely understand that you were hoping to launch the site well ahead of the Thursday meeting. One of our developers is able to help with the launch this week, but we’ll definitely need the time.”

It’s a perfectly fine message, but it’s offering some bad news without really acknowledging that we had (accidentally) misled them with when it would be done. So I suggested some edits:

– “Unfortunately, I think I had a misunderstanding about when this needed to go up, and was planning on the 30th. I’ve spent this morning trying to see if there is a way to speed up development, but I’m afraid we won’t be ready to go tomorrow. Our developers are doing everything that can, but with needing to build out the additional page, we need the extra couple of days.

I’m very sorry about this and completely understand why it was important to get it up on Tuesday. I’ll be in close communication with our developers, and will let you know if anything looks like it’s changing.”

It’s a bit fluffy, but I believe it did more to put the client at ease. It hopefully helped them see there was a misunderstanding, but at this point, we’re doing everything we can to get this live before the Thursday meeting.

As you can see from the examples, it’s not necessary to focus on utilizing all these tactics for every message you send. For me personally, I at least reread (several times typically) any message I’m sending to a client or group of people. It’s habit now and conveniently helps with the important task of proofreading, too!

Here are some more communication strategies in project management.

What Do You Think?

I hope what I’ve shared is helpful for you moving forward. For what it’s worth, armed with a new perspective, Phase II of that large redesign project went extremely well for Viget and the client. I got along swimmingly with the main point of contact, in part because I was diligent at the start to keep our written communication on track. How you are communicating matters in so many ways.

If you have additional tips, I’d love to hear them!

By Becky Tornes

Becky has a strong background in project management, with more than 10 years of experience in the field. Throughout various roles, she leveraged her web optimization, client relationship, and project management skills to add insight and strategy to the projects she’s leading. She has worked with clients like T-Mobile, Discovery Channel, and Volunteers of America to improve web sites and their performance since 2006.