Hey You. Watch Your Tone!

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

“It’s not what you’re saying, it’s the way you’re saying it!” We’ve said this to someone, or someone has said it to us.

It got me thinking to familiar phrases that if said a certain way can put people off, like: “Can I make a suggestion?” If the tone isn’t right, this phrase can irritate or offend. For example, if my tone is stern or harsh, the other party knows that it’s not a suggestion, I’m trying to force my point of view. “Can I make a suggestion?” can also be delivered in a condescending tone which tells the listener, “this person thinks they’re better/smarter or more knowledgeable than me”.

Other phrases in business that can offend if your tone isn’t right include:

  • “With all due respect.”

  • “In my opinion.”

  • “What you need to understand.”

  • “I hear you.”

  • “Let’s take a step back.”

  • “Is that so?”

  • “Why is that?”

  • “But why?”

While tone of voice has always interested me because it helps put meaning to words, I’ve never thought it was something we needed coaching on, until recently.

Good Communication Gets The Tone Right

Right now, August 2020, almost all our interactions in the corporate world are in a virtual setting. And video meetings or phone conversations don’t provide the full scope of sensory cues like noticing a brief frown, a shy smile, the roll of eyes, clenched jaw and so on. So this forces us to rely more on tone of voice to clue us in about the other person’s intent and shifting attitudes.

Tone dictates whether what you say is building trust or alienating your audience and tone can impact your ability to influence the other party. For example, you might have a brilliant idea which you’ve researched well, and your analysis is reliable. But, if you present this idea in a soft and hesitant tone, you won’t be believed.

Maybe Tech Talk Isn’t Boring

The most common failure in getting the tone right in the B2B IT world is what experts call, the use of inflexion which is how you modulate your voice when you speak. Many subject matter experts and leaders that frequently present in front of clients or large internal groups fail to connect and engage with their audience because they don’t inflect their voice (up and down and soft to loud). A monotone speaker is the worst speaker. They might have something smart or fascinating to say, but unfortunately, their tone of voice sends us to sleep.

A monotone is more noticeable when you’re giving a speech or any type of presentation virtually. I’ve learned this the hard way having to present online training sessions at my previous company. I was given feedback that I needed to inject more excitement and enthusiasm in my voice. Online, you have to take your tone up a notch if you want people to tune in.

Right now, you’re consciously and subconsciously making judgements about people depending on their tone of voice, and they’re doing the same to you. We may be unfairly judging each other because we haven’t thought about how our tone of voice is coming across, even if we intend to communicate with respect and kindness.

What You Can Do To Improve Your Tone

First, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who am I communicating with? (E.g. A large online crowd of employees)

  • What is the purpose and theme of my communication? (E.g. Tough times, everyone has to take a pay cut, and as the CEO, I’m doing the same, and I want you to know we’re all in this together)

  • What tone of voice do I think is the most appropriate? (E.g. Warm, informal and sincere)

Second, practice the speech or presentation, paying attention only to your tone:

  • Get into the right mindset. (To deliver bad news to staff it pays to think from the perspective of your audience. Most likely, your audience may be fearful and nervous. So, the right mindset is sympathy and understanding).

  • Record yourself speaking or practice with someone and ask for feedback on your tone.

  • If the tone isn’t right, keep practising until you get it right.

Are You Tone Deaf?

While you’re practising getting your tone right, you might not be paying attention to the other person’s tone. If you ask someone via the phone or video to finish an important and urgent project, and they say, “Sure, I can do that”, are you listening to their tone of voice? Because if you aren’t, how do you know they’ll finish it on time or deliver stellar work? If, however, you’re paying attention and their tone is less than enthusiastic, you can test their willingness and capability before you hand over the assignment.

Listening to people’s tone of voice is as important as monitoring and finessing your tone of voice in conversations online.


Before you get on a conference call whether video or phone, think about how your tone of voice will either build trust or tear it down, will leave your audience cold or have them warm to you, will illuminate or just bore them to tears.

And if you’re the listener, tune in to the speaker’s tone more than their words. It’s in the tone that you’ll pick up what they think and feel about a topic.

Tone of voice is also important in business writing, and I’ll discuss this in a future article.

For More About Tone of Voice

  • Tone of Voice in Communication by Alex Lyon, excellent YouTube video that covers pacing, tone, volume, pauses, shades of meaning and attitude

  • 5 Vocal Warm Up Exercises Before Meetings, Speeches and Presentations, by the delightful Vanessa Van Edwards. Watch this YouTube video if you want practical tips

  • Vocal Branding: How Your Voice Shapes Your Communication Image. “Your voice is your calling card”, so says, Dr Wendy LeBorgne, in this excellent TED Talk

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