Why tone of voice is not your problem

June 6, 2016

Loads of brands are convinced they’ve got a problem with their tone of voice. They think they need some tone of voice guidelines – ideally featuring some nice adjectives like ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’ – to share throughout their organisation. But, for many brands, the problem isn’t so much with how they’re speaking, but with what they’re saying in the first place. And there are other, more practical, solutions to the problem they’re trying to solve…

On the one hand, I love tone of voice jobs. They can throw up some really insightful things about a client and the way they run their business. And, for a writer, pondering and creating a set of guidelines can be really good fun.

At the same time, I’m a bit disillusioned with the whole thing. I don’t doubt tone of voice exists – you could pick a Virgin headline out of an identity parade, for instance. But I do doubt you can teach and apply tone of voice, at least in the way people claim.

And I’m absolutely positive that, for many organisations, tone of voice isn’t the problem. Hear me out.

Why tone of voice isn’t working…

I think there are two big issues with creating a tone of voice:

1. Brands usually want a tone that’s clear, friendly, professional, human… In other words, ideas from the school of the bleedin’ obvious. Which brands want to be unclear, unfriendly, unprofessional? Or inhuman??

As a result, ‘tone of voice’ guidelines often contain the same stuff: writing tips that apply to any brand, anywhere. You know: vary your sentence lengths to create rhythm, use contractions to be more approachable, don’t use ten words when three will do… Great. It’s all good stuff. But it’s not ‘tone of voice’. It’s just decent writing.

2. When a brand is so bold as to want something actually distinctive for their tone of voice – say, they want to be curious, provocative, egregious, whatever – tone of voice is incapable of explaining how to achieve this in practice.

For instance, the University of Leeds has some guidelines that are great for writing tips. They’ve got some decent stuff on how to write in a way that’s ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’. But as soon as they start investigating how to write in an ‘imaginative’ way, things start to unravel. They start reaching for other adjectives to describe the original adjective (a mind-bender if ever there was one). One suggestion is to be ‘visionary’:

Remember who you’re talking to. What’s exciting and visionary for one audience may not be for another. Find an imaginative headline or opening sentence to attract and hook your reader.

Sorry, but this is completely impractical. How exactly does the user, who may not be a professional writer, ‘find an imaginative headline’? How do they know what will ‘hook’ their reader? Finding the magical line, the creative flourish, the poetry that makes an idea sing – it doesn’t boil down to a three-step exercise. It takes experience, usually from someone who has spent their career trying to understand the spot where art and craft meet.

…And why tone of voice is not your problem anyway

Even if it was possible to create a perfect, practical set of tone of voice guidelines, they aren’t necessarily what you need.

I recently wrote a post about how I helped a massive financial services company with their website. The client had loads of content – but, they said, the tone wasn’t right. We rewrote the content in the tone the client asked for – clear, friendly. The usual. But the client wasn’t happy. You see, once we’d unwound the endless sentences, tidied up all the jargon and polished the big ideas, it was plain to see: the original content was saying all the wrong things.

And that’s the case for so many organisations. The problem isn’t just how they express their ideas – it’s that they don’t know which ideas to express in the first place.

And that’s where we can add real value as writers. We could have charged the client a serious wedge to create a new tone of voice and a set of guidelines – but that wouldn’t have solved their problem. Instead, we used our experience in understanding readers, in reframing the ideas, in repositioning messages, to come up with some foundations that actually worked. After that, tone was hardly an issue. Happy days.

So what’s the answer?

Instead of paying for some tone of voice guidelines (which, too often, languish either on a server or in the bottom of a drawer), I reckon clients would be better off spending their money on some great foundations: core stories and key messaging documents. These help explain what a brand does, and why it matters, in a way that really means something for customers and staff.

Then, clients could arrange regular training for staff, to help everyone understand how to use these documents to create other great content. And some training on straight-up ‘good writing’ – that will help too.

And above all, clients should really value good writers. And they should make space for great writers on their team. At the moment, too many junior marketing execs – who have no desire to be writers themselves – end up writing tons of content for big brands, on everything from email campaigns to social media stuff. And it’s partly because their bosses think writing is easy, or at least easy to learn quickly. It really isn’t. Would-be writers need time to learn, and proper support from great mentors. (I certainly wouldn’t be making a living as a writer now had I not worked with awesome people who happily let me steal their best ideas.)

If you’re a writer, tell me: what do you think about tone of voice work? And if you’re a client, let me know how you keep your tone of voice on the straight and narrow…

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