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Tone of voice: a very important waste of time

Tone of voice: a very important waste of time

Tone of voice is wide open to interpretation

I once had a client who wanted ads with sophisticated wit. Sophisticated wit was written in the tone of voice box of the creative brief. Scripts were assessed for their sophisticated wittiness. Yet many of the ads that ran were based on slapstick visual humour. As far as the agency was concerned, there was nothing sophisticated about them, quite the opposite in fact. My client loved the scripts nonetheless.

Tone of voice is in the eye of the beholder. No matter how tightly defined, it’s wide open to interpretation.

It’s beyond obvious that tone is a vital part of effective communication. An appropriate tone of voice disarms and captivates your audience. It’s as important as body language. You have to get it right. So the desire to precisely define and dictate tone of voice is entirely understandable. It’s also misguided.

Brands want their tone to be appropriate and consistent. Appropriate means being true to the brand and appealing to the target audience. Appropriate is essential. Consistent isn’t.

A precisely defined and consistent tone sounds like an entirely reasonable aspect of brand management. However, whilst it’s possible to achieve a consistent tone, it’s all but impossible to precisely define one. And a consistent tone of voice isn’t always desirable anyway.

Tone of voice is a low resolution and low fidelity concept

It’s low resolution because of the limitations of language. No matter how precisely you choose your words, they will mean something different to someone else. Even the most pointed adjectives are blunt instruments. Your understated is not the same as my understated. Your candid is differently calibrated to mine. 

Like colours, language comes in shades. There are a hundred shades of quirky, countless shades of confident, dozens of direct. Language is inherently rich and unruly. Its limitations are also the source of its beauty. It serves us well for literature but not for defining tone of voice.

Low resolution leads to low fidelity. Tone of voice is a low fidelity concept. It loses a lot in translation from brief to execution. You might have a clear idea of what eccentric looks like and sounds like. Your copywriter has another idea entirely.

Consistency is overrated

The famous ads for Levi’s were consistent in some important ways, but tone of voice wasn’t one of them. Their tone was all over the place. The tone of an ad set in a retro Laundrette to a Marvin Gaye soundtrack is very different to the tone of a black and white epic set in 19th Century pioneer country to the hard rock of Stiltskin.

Consistency for Levi’s wasn’t about tone. Consistency came from a creative strategy based on a brand truth.

Denim jeans were originally made as workwear for people like builders and refuse collectors. So, in the 50’s, wearing jeans casually was an act of rebellion. The Levi’s campaign appropriated that spirit of rebellion. Rebellion is what all those famous ads had in common.

Rebellion is not a tone of voice. Nor is rebellious for that matter. Rebellion is a brand spirit that’s loaded with narrative potential. Who’s rebelling? Against what? In what context? Tell me a great story about denim rebellion and you’ll be consistently true to the brand. The tone will take care of itself and it doesn’t need to be consistent.

Tone takes care of itself

The Hamlet Cigar ads had a rigid story structure. They had an ever-present signature tune. As a result they were consistently funny. You’d probably say that they had a consistent tone of voice. But how do you define the tone of an ad of two halves? What tone do you get when you mix one part intense frustration with one part sweet relief?

Once again, how you describe the tone is irrelevant. The tone of voice – which can’t be defined – is an inevitable consequence of the tight structure and executional detail – both of which can be defined.

The key to writing Hamlet ads wasn’t their tone of voice. It was pitching the level of misfortune in the first half of the ad at the right level for the cigar to be a perfectly proportionate consolation. Get that right and the tone takes care of itself.

It’s easier to maintain a tone than to create one

The Economist’s campaign had a distinctive and consistent tone of voice. In fact, it was all about tone of voice. However, you and I would almost certainly use different words to describe it. I might say knowing. You might say exclusive. I might say intelligent. You might say aspirational. We’d both be right, and we’d both be wrong.

Economist posters. All about tone of voice

Once a campaign like this is established it doesn’t matter what words we use, because we all know the right tone when we see it. A new ad either nails the tone or it doesn’t. A creative team doesn’t need a brief, let alone a painstakingly crafted tone of voice statement, to write new ads for an established campaign like this.

It’s much easier to maintain a tone of voice than to create one. And that maintenance is more effectively achieved through good examples than through words that are meant to be tight but which are inevitably loose.

That’s all well and good, but what do we do when we’re starting from scratch?

Tone of voice is an output not an input

The creative brief for a new campaign will include some words in the tone of voice box. But those words will have little or no influence on the creative process. The ideas will come from elsewhere on the brief, or something said in the briefing, or gloriously out of the ether.

The creative team will come up with some ideas for a new campaign. One of those ideas will be approved. It will have a tone of voice. It probably won’t be the tone of voice that was written into the brief. In fact it will be a happy accident if it bears any similarity.

The tone of voice of the approved idea will be post-rationalised as being on-brand and on-strategy. It will be put into low-resolution words and included in the brief for the next ads in the campaign. The next team to work on the brief will ignore those words and follow their creative noses based on the structural and stylistic precedent set by the ads that established the campaign.

I’ve never known creative development for a new campaign to be inspired by adjectives in a tone of voice box. That’s not to say that you can’t influence tone through what you write there. But to be helpful to creatives you need to think beyond Central Casting for tone of voice. Indeed, other sections of the brief often exert greater influence on the tone of the work. There is inherent tone to a well framed problem. A proposition with a narrative structure, or narrative keywords (e.g. rebellion), will have a major influence on tone.

What about copy that isn’t advertising?

Copy for websites, brochures and such like is concerned at least as much with with clarity as it is with tone. Clarity, or clear, or plain, or simple are not tone of voice words. You might describe someone as using simple language, but you wouldn’t say that someone had a simple tone of voice. Tone of voice words are emotive – determined, earnest, businesslike. And all of these, no matter how precise they sound, are open to interpretation.

Most brand identity documents include guidelines for writing copy. If those guidelines try to define the brand’s tone of voice in words, then all of the points above, about defining and dictating tone, still apply. Defining a tone in words is not a good way to ensure its consistency, regardless of context.

The most effective approach to achieving consistency is to establish black and white rules that are not open to interpretation. If followed by every writer, these rules make a base level of consistency inevitable. There are common rules such as using the active voice or writing in plain English. But even the idea of plain English is easy to abuse without specific examples of what plain looks like. Rules that have an inevitable impact on tone of voice are things like mandating the use of the first person when writing profile pages or biographies.

The most famous writing style guide, jam-packed with do-or-don’t rules is the A to Z of rules produced by the Government Digital Service for

A waste of time

It feels so sensible, so professional to have a nailed-down definition of tone of voice. But nailing down the definition doesn’t nail down the tone of your creative output. You can’t precisely dictate tone and you can’t objectively assess it. What’s more, the very process of nailing down a definition is almost always a process of consensus and compromise. How can the output of such a process be sharp and useful?

An appropriate tone of voice is essential. A consistent tone, in my view, is optional. There are ways to manage and guide the tone of communication, but telling a creative person what tone to create against is not one of them.

In summary…

  • No matter how tightly defined, tone of voice is wide open to interpretation.
  • The desire to define and dictate tone is understandable but misguided.
  • Tone of voice is a low resolution and low fidelity concept.
  • It’s easier to maintain a tone than to create one…
  • …but consistency is overrated anyway.
  • Tone of voice is an output not an input.
  • Time is best spent on things that make an appropriate tone inevitable, not on defining a tone that will most likely be ignored.

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  1. I found this article on the Storythings newsletter and I couldn’t agree more with every point in your analysis. I think TOV is definitely helpful to an extent but it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do when we obsess over it just to give our team a false sense of control.

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