Setting the 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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