New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Tone Matters: 4 Steps to Getting It Right

Dear Mary:

Our board regularly sends emails to residents via BuildingLink, and I recently opened one of those emails when it showed up in my inbox. Ugh. When I read it with fresh eyes, it felt cold and unfriendly. It seemed overly formal, almost legal, somewhat demanding. And the email was related to the reopening of an amenity space — it was good news! This isn’t how we want to come across to our residents. Any hints for striking a better tone?

— Tone-Deaf in Turtle Bay


Dear Tone-Deaf:

Every bit of communication with your residents — be it written or verbal — is an opportunity to build and maintain a good relationship. Tone matters, and you’re wise to worry about it.  

One bit of good news: You’ve already taken two important steps. You looked at the message with fresh eyes. And you thought about how it may come across to your audience. Another piece of good news is that a few simple guidelines can help you improve further. Here’s a short list of do’s and don’ts you can use to evaluate and improve anything you write — before you send it out.

1. Do think “neighbor-to-neighbor,” not “emperor-to-subjects.” Yes, owners elected you to the board. But they didn’t crown you emperor, so your communications shouldn’t sound imperious. Read your draft email out loud. Does it sound like a pronouncement from on high? The residents are your equals, not misbehaving children. Even if you’re telling them what to do, your tone should be polite and friendly. Write as if you’re talking to someone you know and like.

2. Do invite dialogue. Maybe residents won’t have any questions because you’ve been perfectly clear. Maybe they won’t have any concerns because you’ve addressed them preemptively. But you still need to tell them whom they can contact — and how to do so. If you simply dump information on people, you’re sending a message you probably don’t want to send. You’re implying that they shouldn’t have anything to say, and if they do, too bad, because you don’t want to hear it. Not helpful. Instead, create a respectful tone by acknowledging that they might have questions or concerns and by giving them an easy way to get them resolved.

3. Don’t channel your inner attorney. Some communications definitely need a legal review. But your typical emails to residents shouldn’t sound or look as if they come from an attorney. Skip the legal jargon and phrasing. Use the active voice. Refer to residents as “you” and the board as “we” or “us.” Don’t be reluctant to use contractions. Do you have a court document you can dig up for reference? See how it’s formatted? See those big blocks of text, justified margins, use of uppercase and underlining? Now make sure your messages look nothing like that!

4. Don’t write your Ph.D. thesis. You shouldn’t be looking to impress residents with your brilliance. They’re not deciding whether to let you into some exalted level of academia. They just want to understand what you’re telling them — quickly and easily. So put your efforts into making your message clear and focused. If you’re using Microsoft Word, use its “Review” feature to test and improve readability. When you put time into clarifying a message, you’re reducing the burden on your audience. This is another way to give your communication a respectful tone.

It takes some time to build a new communication habit. So you should expect to put in a bit more effort at first. If you do, these techniques will become second nature. And your communication to residents should improve dramatically. Good luck!


Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.

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