Don’t talk to me about f@!**%g tone of voice.

Much of my professional life has involved helping large corporates – it’s just the way the account-cookie has crumbled. What’s struck me, is that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what they should communicate. Instead, they obsess with how they should speak. And that obsession has a name: ‘tone of voice’.

On the back of this rides a lucrative industry of specialist writing agencies whose proposition is to create a shiny new unique ‘TOV’ for you. What this really means, is that they highlight your company’s jargon-ridden, officious, charmless and downright poorly written communications, then introduce a lighter, breezier style and vocabulary, with lots of ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples and workshops to illustrate where you were and where you could be.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ I hear you ask. Well, in its own right, nothing.

However, writing in an informal and friendly style is something which companies should easily be able to master by themselves, mainly by hiring folk who can write, express themselves without routinely resorting to jargon, and who always view things from the customer’s POV (sorry, I mean point of view). I have seen numerous ‘TOV makeovers’ for many different brands, and just for the record, the ‘new’ tone of voice such an agency will arrive at for one company, is pretty well identical to the one they will come up with for another. In short, even they have only one tone of voice to peddle – they just keep re-packaging it.

Tone of voice is, in fact, largely a nonsense.

Think about it.

You as a human being are continually thinking about what you’re going to say next, otherwise you’d just spout gobbledygook. But what about the way you are going to say it? Are you going to think about that too? No, because unless you are the affected type, that bit comes naturally. In other words, how you say something is determined by what you are saying.

It is this ‘what’, rather than the ‘how’, on which we as communicators should concentrate and this is something the advertisers of yesteryear understood. Remember Leagas Delaney’s insightful Timberland work, or Abbott Mead Vickers’ amusing campaign for The Economist, their safety-conscious one for Volvo and compelling ads for the RSPCA (yes, David Abbott and Co have been disproportionately responsible for much of the industry’s decent output)? These days, Arnold KLP’s cross-track posters for Jack Daniels are a rare example of work which enlightens its audience. I am no whiskey drinker, but even I still read them.

Many moons ago, I produced some ads for high-end hi-fi brand, Linn. Its customers are aficionados; hi-fi anoraks, whose mouths wow and hearts flutter at interesting product facts. One fact we found out, was that to achieve the precision they needed to manufacture parts for their turntables, Linn had to eliminate vibration from their factory floor. Ingeniously, they did it by suspending the factory off the ground, which removed all but minimal contact with it. That fact gave us something to say which we knew would fascinate our audience, so we didn’t need to worry about tone of voice, not that we were going to anyway, of course.

As my Watford tutor Tony Cullingham used to say, ‘a good idea writes itself’ (and that from a man whose nickname was ‘Tone’). It simply doesn’t need the contrivance also known as tone of voice.

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