The difference between persona and tone in digital communication

An assistant professor with Ryerson University helps clarify the reasons we sound the way we do across e-mail, text messages and more


Ramona Pringle

We often adopt a “persona” for our digital communications, but the tone may differ across platforms. We might use a smiley face in a text message, for example, but never in an email.

But we tend to make too great a distinction between our online and offline environments, says Ramona Pringle (pictured above), an assistant professor at the RTA School of Media with Ryerson University.

Tone and persona are two different things — and this speaks to the affordances of platforms. Personas are crafted based on context and learned social narratives.

Earlier: What your professional texting persona says about you

“There is something very empowering about being able to create a persona — in a sense it is the opportunity to become the best version of one’s self,” says Pringle. “People do this through their social media profiles, through Twitter or blogging; they do it in online communities and play spaces.”

How we communicate in the workplace comes down to the affordances of different platforms. Twitter tends to be more public than Facebook, says Pringle, so while you might be the same person on both platforms, you may choose to reveal more of yourself in a context that feels more private.

We don’t necessarily have different personas, but people may choose to reveal different parts of their lives or personalities on different platforms, just as they do in different real-world contexts.

Understanding this can help us to understand how people are working across an organization — and to update outmoded views of desktop-centric work practices, according to the authors of The Digital Renaissance of Work.

We often collaborate with colleagues using multiple forms of communication at the same time, which makes those desktop-centric work practices even more archaic. We might be on a conference call or video chat, for example, while interacting with our colleagues through a live document or presentation on the desktop.

So if people reveal different parts of themselves on different platforms, how does this play out when they’re using multiple platforms at the same time?

Our digital personas reflect our “real-life” personas, so someone who is shy and introverted probably won’t be particularly chatty during a videoconference.

To encourage participation of all employees in a collaborative work environment, a unified communications (UC) strategy should take into account how different types of users — or “personas” — prefer to interact on different platforms.

During an online meeting, for example, an introvert may prefer to ask questions via text, while an extrovert might prefer to interact with his or her colleagues via a real-time video chat.

When UC strategies fail, IT leaders are left wondering why their investment in certain technologies didn’t pan out. Usually, they rolled it out to meet certain business requirements: to increase efficiencies or decrease costs. But what’s not always considered is the human element.

If a certain tool isn’t being used as much as was initially anticipated, it’s worth asking users why they aren’t using it and what could be done to change that, rather than trying to force them to communicate in ways they aren’t comfortable with.

A UC strategy shouldn’t ignore the power of the digital persona. It could help to encourage participation — even from those introverts — and result in a higher rate of success.

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