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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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airbnb: changing the world with a word

June 9, 2015

Last week I went to the School of Life‘s Business Wise conference: a day where some scarily brainy speakers explored how business can help us to lead more fulfilling lives.

It was just brilliant. We heard how startups like BlaBlaCar and TransferWise are contributing to a Sharing Economy, where customers are responsible for delivering the brand experience to others. We explored the idea that great new businesses offer the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – instead of things like shelter and transport, which are already well catered-for, new brands such as airbnb offer friendship and connection.

I’m particularly fascinated by this airbnb example. On the surface of it, going on holiday and staying in a stranger’s house is, well, kind of insane. (Although perhaps not so crazy as letting a bunch of strangers come and sleep in your spare bedroom.) And if the airbnb pitch had been about all the functional stuff – the house you visit, the bed you sleep in – maybe the idea would have sounded crazy too.

But, obviously, that’s not the airbnb pitch. The pitch is about feeling at home, anywhere in the world.  It’s about being part of a community.

In fact, airbnb sum it up in one word: belonging.

I really, really admire the single-mindedness of airbnb’s thinking. They’ve hit on something that all of us, wherever we are in the world, truly yearn for. And, crucially, they’ve focused their comms on this one idea. They don’t constantly muddy the waters with other messages about quality accommodation or easy booking – even though these things are very much a part of their brand experience. They use the idea of belonging as the golden thread running through everything they say. Just have a look at the Belong Anywhere video on their homepage.

It reminds me of something I read in Made to Stick, a ridiculously useful book about comms by Chip and Dan Heath. The book talks about ‘finding the core’ of a brand – as well as guiding your comms, this core acts as a filter for all the decisions you make day-to-day. For example, Southwest Airlines has decided to be ‘THE low-fare airline’ – and so they don’t offer extra-cost things like mid-flight snacks, even if some customers say they’d like them. This might seem extreme. But it means that customers are absolutely clear about the offering, and therefore more likely to remember it.

Lots of brands try to say too much about their offering – and, as a result, people remember nothing. Airbnb have filtered their thoughts down to a single word. And that’s something we won’t forget in a hurry.


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Ice bucket campaign lands charity in hot water

June 1, 2015

The people of Twitter are disgruntled again. No, it’s not Katie Hopkins this time. In fact it’s an unlikely villain: the charity Motor Neurone Disease Association. It seems that the public don’t find the charity’s latest campaign touching or inspiring – they find it ‘highly inappropriate’ and even ‘revolting’.

The campaign in question is called Last Summer. It has its own hashtag, natch. And it looks back to a time when we all, decked in our swimming costumes and dressing gowns, took to our gardens and hilariously risked cardiac arrest as part of the ice bucket challenge. The campaign idea is fair enough. But as Brian Whelan, Channel 4’s deputy digital editor, pointed out in his tweet, the execution is somewhat lacking:

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 13.54.27

The copy seems to imply that Michael’s motor neurone disease diagnosis has something to do with him skipping the ice bucket challenge last year. Which is obviously absurd. And Twitter responded to say as much:


Last year, I didn’t take a no make-up selfie. Now, I have leprosy.

And my personal favourite:



Of course, the ad is terrible. The logic is so clearly screwy, and I’m surprised nobody picked up on the sinister karmic overtones before it went to print. I certainly wouldn’t have signed it off, and nor would any of the creatives I’ve worked with. But is all the righteous indignation doing more harm than good?

First, I don’t for a minute believe that anyone at the MNDA really intended to say: DONATE OR ELSE. It’s just a clumsy, ill-though line that shouldn’t have made it onto the campaign posters (and it’s certainly not the only one of those you’ll see today as you squash yourself into the next Northern line carriage). But many Twitter comments suggest that it’s not just a piece of bad creative, but that it came from bad people – or at least a bad impulse:

Appalling guilt baiting charity advertising.

I don’t give to charities which guilt-trip people. Fuck off.

That’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to say fuck off to a charity fighting an awful disease

I mean, these guys aren’t Protein World. And in some ways, the ad is almost right – for instance, imagine it said something like:

“Last summer, I never thought about motor neurone disease – I didn’t even do the ice bucket challenge. This year I was diagnosed.”

Second, the furore could damage more than MNDA’s donations. OK, maybe the charity will be more careful next time. And that’s good – but only to a point. It’s not good when brands start playing safe with their campaigns, creating work that’s designed to dodge bullets rather than win plaudits. Fear of making mistakes is the death of creativity – and that fear is only accentuated in these days when social media can serve up some of the roughest justice, deserved or otherwise. Critical analysis is one thing – but sweary rage is bruising, demoralising and not constructive.

To anyone who called MNDA out on Twitter today: I totally agree with you that the ad is rubbish. It’s your right to flag it in public, and I actually think you’re right to do so. But, when you do, please show a little compassion. At the end of the day, we all want better work – not bland stuff that leaves us cold.

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Monster ideas from the Ministry of Stories

October 23, 2014

Last weekend I went to a workshop run by the Ministry of Stories, an organisation that helps children to develop skills and self-esteem through storytelling. In the workshop, we – a group of amateur and professional writers – had to collaborate to produce our own story, complete with cliffhanger, all in the space of 45 minutes. It’s what the kids at the Ministry do every week – how hard could it be for us?

We started out in a suitably surreal and promising place, with a badger called Daisy on the run from the government. Continue reading →

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Talking politics: UKIP and ‘common sense’

October 13, 2014

Language plays a crucial part in politics. For instance, a Spare Room Subsidy might not sound like much to get bothered about – but a Bedroom Tax certainly won’t make you any friends.

Lately, there’s been a curious phenomenon in political writing: politicians are keen to be perceived as simple and clear. David ‘let me be clear’ Cameron is practically the patron saint of this movement. Labour’s chairman has told Ed Miliband to use more ‘direct language’ to win voters (Hazel Blears was herself more direct and told Ed to use ‘normal human language’). However, the reality of politicians’ intentions doesn’t necessarily match the language they use to describe them.

That’s why I particularly like this post from UKIP Checker, a website that checks the often-bombastic claims of the UK’s most talked-about party…

Continue reading →

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Learning from literature

October 5, 2014

There are loads of style guides out there, all designed to turn you into the next Pulitzer prizewinner. Some of the good ones – like Strunk and White’s much-loved Elements of Style –  offer some really useful advice about things like grammar. But, for me, there’s one piece of advice that all aspiring writers should heed above all others: Read.

Continue reading →

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