On describing tone of voice

by Tom Albrighton 2 June 2014 Tone of voice

Since the publication of John Simmons’ pioneering We, Me, Them and It in 2000, tone of voice has become one of the key elements of the branding discipline. Alongside the well-established idea of visual identity, we now have the concept of verbal identity: the way a brand speaks, as opposed to the way it dresses. And just as design has its methods of specifying and calibrating elements of layout, so writers who work with tone of voice need a shared language to discuss and describe the styles and structures they use.

Like content marketing, tone of voice was discovered and named rather than invented. Writers were ‘doing’ tone of voice long before it had that name. To some extent, they do it all the time. Even on projects that don’t focus specifically on tone of voice, they’re still thinking about tone – just instinctively rather than explicitly.

Awareness of tone manifests itself at the atomic level of writing, in the myriad micro-decisions through which a draft evolves. You put something down, but it ‘sounds wrong’. Why does it sound wrong? You don’t know. It just does. It’s the wrong shape, the wrong colour, the wrong sound. It doesn’t fit – and it can ‘not fit’ even when nothing else is written yet. And the thing it doesn’t fit with is the target tone of voice.

So on you go, step by step, weighing each word against an internal standard that you’re developing and refining even as you refer to it. You’re in a darkened labyrinth, and your torch only shines so far. And when the text is complete, your sense of the tone is more or less complete too.

Defining a tone of voice means lighting the whole maze before you go into it. It’s about setting in advance the parameters that you’ll use to measure your words when you actually write – and laying down guidelines so someone else can follow in your footsteps later on.

The underlying motivation is quite close to what NLP calls ‘modelling’. According to this view, to achieve excellence in a particular field, we simply need to discern, codify and then imitate the behaviours and thought patterns of one who is already competent. To become a millionaire, just think and act like a millionaire.

Describing language with language is tricky.

Maybe it is that simple, sometimes. But while we can observe people’s actions directly, we can only apprehend their thoughts through language. And that process doesn’t always work that well – to put it mildly.

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant at all.’
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Language can only be described with language; writing can only be described in writing. When designers create design guidelines, they can use objective symbols (images, diagrams), numbers (dimensions, proportions) and shared standards (fonts, Pantone charts) that admit no ambiguity. Of course, those who follow design guidelines still have many choices to make, and may well observe the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. But if they’re paying attention, at least there’ll be enough space around the logo.

In contrast, tone of voice guidelines attempt to control the writing process through the writing process itself: to create sort of a meta-language that stands ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ ‘normal’ discourse and has the power to contain or control it. But that aim is fraught with difficulty.

It’s rather like trying to make a water jug out of ice. The medium and its ‘container’ are made of the same material, so they keep blending into each other. Just as literary criticism is itself open to critique – of being biased, or incomplete, or ideologically motivated – so tone of voice guidelines are ultimately subjective and ‘up for grabs’. In the end, everything resolves, or dissolves, into a shifting morass of semiotic relativism. All we really have is a sea of words.

Meet the formality scale.

Tone of voice has many dimensions, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that it has just one: formality. In this model, tone is defined as a point on a continuum stretching from wacky brands like Wotsits to sober ones like Coutts.


It all looks reassuringly bounded and rational, and we can imagine placing a brand on this scale with some confidence that someone else will get what we mean. But even here, language can betray us.

What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
I’m gonna have some fun!
What do you consider fun?
Fun, natural fun!
Tom Tom Club, lyrics to ‘Genius of Love’

We think our definitions are shared, but they may not be. Just what does Tina Weymouth mean by ‘natural fun’? Is her understanding the same as yours, or mine? What is ‘fun’?

If a client asks for their copy to be ‘fun’, what do they mean? To someone who regularly works with a range of tones, ‘fun’ probably denotes something around the Wotsits end of the spectrum. Doing ‘fun’ for Coutts, therefore, would entail a root-and-branch overhaul of their tone, and a rewrite of everything ever created for the brand.

However, in my experience, concepts like ‘fun’ are used relatively, not absolutely. While you might hear ‘fun’ and reach for the verbal deelyboppers, the client may be thinking more of loosening their tie slightly. In other words, what they’re actually looking for is for their tone to be moved a couple of notches to the left, not funkified beyond all recognition. More than once, I’ve been briefed to produce ‘fun’ or ‘quirky’ text, only to be told to dial back on the informality when the client saw what I’d done.

Defining words is like herding cats.

When you creep up and try to grab hold of words this way, their meaning slips through your fingers like sand. Language is in an infinite relational structure where words only take meaning from context – and the simpler the word, the more contexts it has.

Nevertheless, it’s still tempting to get out the toolkit and try to nail the jelly to the wall. So when the client asks for ‘fun’, you email back and ask if you can agree what ‘fun’ actually means. How about this?

fun n. enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure

No, that doesn’t help. You’re just adding more storeys to the house of cards. Words can only be defined with other words and absolute, determinate meaning recedes out of sight, deferred to infinity. You might as well just define words in terms of themselves.

I know it is wet
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!
Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

The map is not the territory.

From these discomfiting ideas follows the vertiginous thought that language has no concrete, fundamental link with reality at all – not even the reality of other words. That’s why we can concoct sentences that make no sense either internally or externally, opening a sudden trapdoor beneath the unwary reader or listener, as Futurama‘s Professor Farnsworth often demonstrates:

Well, getting the brain out was the easy part. The hard part was getting the brain out!

Or, more seriously, Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a grammatical but meaningless sentence:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

In the same way, tone of voice documents can easily contain ‘guidelines’ that present as coherent and authoritative, but are in fact mutually contradictory or otherwise impossible to parse and resolve into actionable instructions for writing. Ostensibly maps reflecting a shared, objective reality, they’re actually more like Escheresque optical illusions.

In this post, I described a three-value framework for tones of voice that works well for me. Since then, I’ve discovered to my relief and slight pride that a similar approach is used by many proper tone of voice consultants. (On a recent job, I was sent some tone of voice guidelines that were substantively based on my own post, which I naturally took as a compliment.)

The three values are like tentpoles around which writing can be slung to make a workable structure. But it follows that the tentpoles must be logically arranged – not miles apart, or knocked in at right angles to each other. In other words, this framework only works when the values are roughly in alignment, and the tension between them is productive rather than absurd.

For example, for a children’s shoe brand, I proposed the values ‘fun’, ‘practical’ and ‘economical’. Now, these are are all distinct brand values, encapsulating the brand’s appeal to children and parents respectively, but they’re not contradictory. A shoe that’s tough enough for playground fun is also practical from a parent’s point of view, and can be ‘economical’ in the context of their household budget if it’s priced correctly.

So when we come to translate these values into tone, things should go reasonably smoothly. For a moment, we might hesitate over reconciling ‘fun’ with the other two values. But then we’ll remember who primarily reads our copy (and pays for the product), and realise that it’s children’s fun seen through their parents’ eyes that we need to express. While ‘fun’ is very much a floating concept, its context and relationship with our other two values help to bring it down to earth.

Some tone of voice guidelines want the moon on a stick.

So far, so feasible. But things can go awry when values are more abstract, more separate from reality on the ground. Once that happens, it’s easy to slip into hedging your bets, or trying to have your cake and eat it. In terms of tone-of-voice or copywriting briefs, the symptoms are phrases pivoting on ‘yet’ or ‘but’ – as in ‘professional yet funky’ or ‘poetic but practical’.

I’m sure designers suffer from similar problems. But as I’ve noted, there is at least some objective reality to be had in terms of visual elements we can all see. The logo can’t be ‘bigger yet smaller’. The text can’t be ‘black yet blue’.

Briefs like ‘mischievous yet authoritative’ are exciting yet impossible, because the values required are in straight-out opposition rather than dynamic tension. What may at first glance seem like a challenging yet fulfilling task for the copywriter turns out to be unworkable once you get down to the level of actual word choice. Divergent, incompatible aims are soon exposed by the discipline of the writing process, and you end up either striking a beige compromise, or oscillating wildly between the two poles. When your copy goes in, the client is very likely – indeed, practically obliged – to be unhappy with it. But the second draft will be no easier than the first. That’s why it’s so important to raise concerns at the briefing stage, rather than naïvely taking on the (admittedly flattering) idea that you will somehow be able to fix the problem in the mix.

Who are we writing for?

Assuming tone of voice guidelines can be made coherent and focused, there’s still the question of audience and authority. Who are you writing for, and how will they use what you write? How much control have you got over how – or whether – they use your guidelines?

Tone of voice guidelines are used by a range of people, from those who hardly write at all to those who write for a living. So they need to work for these two extremes, and everyone in between.

Learning to write well takes time. As I discussed earlier, the awareness of tone needs to infiltrate the act of writing at the most atomic level, and this is a learned skill. The writer has to hold three things in their head at once: the topic at hand, the nuts and bolts of language and the target tone of voice.

Ideally, tone of voice guidelines should make it easier to do this, without overloading the writer with information. Of course, they won’t help those who haven’t written much become experts overnight. But they can gently direct the learning process, without preventing apprentice writers from learning by doing, making the mistakes they need to make in order to improve their writing technique experientially.

What about skilled writers? Well, we all know they can be intransigent, not to say arrogant. After all, you don’t get far as a commercial writer without the confidence that you know best. So here, we might have to settle for selective acceptance rather than slavish observance.

Personally, I always read other people’s tone-of-voice guidelines with an attitude of ‘yes, OK, but’. Sometimes, that’s because I feel they don’t fully apply to the job I’m working on. At other times, I can sense, or suspect, that they’re just too aspirational – that is, they don’t reflect the reality of the brand as it ‘really is’, whether in terms of the products or services it encompasses, the marketing collateral that already exists or the likely perceptions of customers. (Many B2B brands want to be ‘innovative’, even those that aren’t really.)

So how can we write tone of voice guidelines that will actually get used?

Bearing all that in mind, let’s look at some tactics for writing tone of voice guidelines and their pros and cons.

Some people write lists of ‘dos and don’ts’, even going down to the level of specific words or constructions that are approved or disapproved. As illustrative examples, they may have some value, but they just feel too rigid for me. The whole approach feels too clear-cut and analytical, and not at all like what happens in my head when I’m writing.

If used in the spirit with which they’re constructed, they’ll simply result in some things being arbitrarily added, others removed. They won’t lead to a living, human draft, and they might also prevent the tone of voice flexing to accommodate unusual circumstances.

Also, the rules need to be bulletproof, or your credibility will crumble in seconds. See this post for an analysis of some guidelines I received that were far too inconsistent – and badly written – to have any real authority.

A better method is with exemplars – writing some text in the target tone by way of illustration. Then you are showing rather than telling, or as near as you’re going to get. However, there may still be issues with writers selectively picking up on different attributes of the text, whether deliberately or unconsciously. It’s also difficult to write one or a few examples that will fly in every situation, which gives the reader enough wriggle room to argue that their assignment is different and falls outside the rules.

Perhaps the best solution is the radically simple one I saw proposed by verbal identity consultant Andy York in his speech at the Who Needs Copywriters? conference in 2013. Andy proposed sidestepping the whole values/tone/style trap by simply positing values as tone. In other words, rather than obsessing over the technicals of how values translate into writing instructions or examples, you put your effort into expressing the values themselves as clearly as possible, trusting that the words will fall naturally into place.

That expression might be might be a story or a poem. It might be a question for the writer to answer, or a challenge for them to overcome. It might be a metaphor – John Lennon once asked George Martin to make one of his songs sound like an orange.  Then again, the best way to describe tone might be visual, or even musical – whatever makes the values clear. It might be more like a mood board , a scrapbook or a mixtape than a traditional tone of voice document.

Is that too vague for the writer to use as a starting point? Perhaps, but at least it’s predicated on a belief in their intelligence and ability. The underlying mindset is far more positive, focusing on liberating and encouraging the writer rather than tying them down with rules and regulations. There’s something control-freaky about tone of voice guidelines – obsessively micromanaging the mechanics of language and laying down the law for some unknown but clearly inferior writer who will come after us. Maybe it’s better to trust the richness of language, letting its natural flows of meaning carry our expressive ambitions, as in the best poetry. And if nothing else, it’ll be a lot more fun.

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