Blerg—

New, new, new.

new-website

 

I’ve been planning this for years. A fresh take on the old scroller but with pictures and a cool map.

Couldn’t have done it without you, Thomas Tkatchenko.

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Setting the tone.

tone

 

As a copywriter, I often get asked to work on projects that require ‘the right tone of voice’. It baffles me to understand what clients are really asking for and how to provide it.

I first assumed ‘tone of voice’ was really the ‘it factor’—a talent handed to all writers with a distinctive voice. I also assumed it was what people said when they felt anxious about the act of writing. If they didn’t like their own writing, they didn’t have ‘the right tone of voice’. While these are both true, they still don’t shed any light on how to find the right tone for a client or how to apply it.

The Macquarie Dictionary calls it, “a particular quality, way of sounding, modulation, or intonation of the voice as expressive of some meaning,” which is sadly vague and unhelpful. 

It feels right, but the problem with this definition is it mostly refers to the tone of voice given to characters in literature—descriptive features of a voice like nervousness, coldness or joy. While helpful for screenwriting or dialogue in fiction, a brochure or website uses neither of these to communicate with their audience.

Luckily there is another more helpful approach. Since the 1970s, professional writers have been turning stuffy, formal documents into a tone of voice called Plain English. The aim was to remove big, clunky words packed with complex meaning and replace them with simple, brief words that anyone would understand. The Australian Style Manual (6th Edition) calls this the standard register:

“For many kinds of documents a neutral style of communicating is needed, one that puts neither distance nor undue familiarity into the relationship with readers… It makes no presumptions about its readers and informs them fully so that they can act independently on that information.”

It fits somewhere between the formal register, with its authoritative style, and the informal register, with its colloquial style.

Most importantly, when writing for organisations like government, the standard register makes no assumptions about its readership. It talks in plain language that anyone can understand—whether you’re a new immigrant or someone with low-literacy—without resorting to undecipherable jargon or in-jokes.

But Plain English, or the standard register, is only useful some of the time. When a reader needs to be convinced, not just informed, organisations will require more than the simple disinterestedness of Plain English.

At around the same time the Plain English movement was moving through the communications industry, the advertising industry was beginning to play with the informal register. They had very particular target markets in mind—teenagers, young professionals, mothers—and used in-jokes, colloquialisms and common sayings to ‘buddy up’ with those they wanted to talk to. Getting on their level was seen as more important than talking in simple language that anyone can understand.

Advertising also wanted to encourage people to do something. Things like call now, buy here or try today. It wasn’t enough for writing to merely inform the reader, it should motivate them to take action.

The style of writing that motivates readers to act most effectively is still up for debate. In recent years there has been a movement towards the use of storytelling to sell. The book Significant Objects and the website Groupon are two particular examples, where the only writing used to sell a product is a story. DreamHost, a large web-hosting company, send monthly emails to their customers that begin with a mysterious story with no relation to their product. They usually sign the emails off by saying, “Also, something about web hosting,” or “Anyway, thanks for choosing DreamHost!”.

Additionally, a frequent request from marketers is to generate copy that is less ‘sales-ie’. They use the term as an attempt to move away from common sales expressions, exclamations and unfounded claims in order to sound more ‘authentic’ in their motivations. Most marketers though will agree that a ‘call to action’—a simple imperative sentence with an active verb, ie: Join our newsletter—is enough to motivate readers.

The line between the standard register and informal register is constantly changing and blurring. The written language we use to communicate with each other today has become more informal, particularly with the rise of the Internet and social media. Colloquialisms and in-jokes are spreading around the world amongst large groups of people instead of being confined to small geographical groups. We are starting to talk the same way no matter our social context.

The rise of the Internet and desktop computers has also meant people have become accustomed to using typed words to express themselves. We are communicating with the written word more than ever and are doing so in our own idiosyncratic ways.

Today, the Plain English movement and the informal register are not just blurring, but slowly merging. This document is a good example of a mixture of both. The right tone of voice pitches itself somewhere between Plain English and the informal register with appropriately authentic calls-to-action. The length of these sentences are better suited to long-form writing, like brochures or case studies, while marketing copy is better written in short, declarative or imperative sentences with punch.

What an appropriate tone of voice can’t mask, however, is a lack of understanding of a particular subject. Many would even argue that it doesn’t matter how you write or the tone you use—as long as you convey an idea with clarity.

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George, George & Don.

ggd-map

George Carlin

Carlin was born in Manhattan,[24][25] the second son of Mary (Beary), a secretary, and Patrick Carlin, a national advertising manager for the New York Sun.[26] Carlin was of Irish descent and was raised a Roman Catholic.[27][28][29]

He grew up on West 121st Street, in a neighborhood of Manhattan which he later said, in a stand-up routine, he and his friends called “White Harlem“, because that sounded a lot tougher than its real name of Morningside Heights. He was raised by his mother, who left his father when Carlin was two months old.

 

George Lois

Lois was born in New York City on June 26, 1931, the son of Greek immigrants. Lois attended the High School of Music and Art, and received a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University, although he chose to attend Pratt Institute. Lois attended only one year at Pratt, then left to work for Reba Sochis until he was drafted six months later by the Army to fight in the Korean War.

 

Don Delillo

dondelillo

DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936 and grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family, from Molise, in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, not far from Arthur Avenue.[9] Reflecting on his childhood in The Bronx, DeLillo later described how he was “…always out in the street. As a little boy I whiled away most of my time pretending to be a baseball announcer on the radio. I could think up games for hours at a time. There were eleven of us in a small house, but the close quarters were never a problem. I didn’t know things any other way. We always spoke English and Italian all mixed up together. My grandmother, who lived in America for fifty years, never learned English.”[10]

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