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.

08/29/13 -- Copywriting -- 0 Comments

Web conventions



When I asked Ben Taylor to help me write a post about web conventions, we had a discussion about search boxes.

Ben: “Search boxes should have rounded sides.”

Me: “Rounded sides? Really? Whatever man. An isolated study might show you’re right, marginally.”

Ben: “Yeah, I think you can do non-rounded corners, but whenever I see the fully rounded sides I’m like BAM this is a search box.”

Which pretty much sums up what web conventions are all about.

If you’re looking for information, it should be easy to discover, and there should be visual cues to help you. It should be instant.


Like that.

The following list cover the ones we’ve learned and live by.


A button should look and act like a button.

The way to make a button act like a button requires attention to hover states.

When you hover over something that is clickable, your mouse should turn into a pointer, and the button should visibly change. It should invite you to click it.

When you hover over text or input fields your mouse should become the text cursor. If you can move something, the mouse should be the move cursor.

You’d be surprised how often these details are left out. And they make all the difference.


Forms should be short, frictionless.

Checkboxes and Radio buttons should look like checkboxes and radio buttons.

Checkbox = square with tick, Radio button = circle with dot.

Everything you need to know is in this article.

Logo as homepage link

If I click the logo of your site, I go to the homepage. Easy. Peasy.


Search boxes have completely rounded sides. It seems kinda stupid, but it makes a huge difference.


Login, Signup, and Account settings belong in the top right. That’s the first place we all go to find them.


Footers are increasingly becoming more and more important.

If I can’t find something elsewhere on the page (about, contact etc) it should be in the footer.

Check out the one we made for Falls Festival. It’s got everything.

[This post was originally published on the Native Digital Blog]

08/10/11 -- Copywriting -- 0 Comments

Iterate is a dirty word


For those in the start-up community, iterate is a common word.

“Let’s iterate on this a few more times.”

“A few more iterations and it’ll be done.”

“An iterative process really helped us nail that project.”

Bleugh. Dry jargon conversations are the worst.

If you don’t know what iterate means, you’re not alone. Most people I speak to outside of the start-up community have no idea. In fact, most don’t even care. And that’s just the problem.

If you’re not careful, jargon will infect your communications, and put a wedge between the thing you’re making and the real-world.

At my very first day at Native, I was an outsider too.

I heard iterate for the first time and drew a blank. My brain told me this new word was pompous jargon to avoid like sidewalk poop.

So I tried to give it a bad name. I let everyone know about it too.

I wanted to make important concepts easy to understand for real-life, normal talking people. It was my job, my talent, and what made me happy. I was on a misson.

But as I heard it more and more, it became familiar to me, and sunk into my vocabulary.

I had forgotten my misson. Now I write it in emails like it ain’t no thing.

Which was fine, until I mentioned it to a friend, and their face contorted itself into the same blank I had on my first day.

It’s a lesson in copywriting and communication that applies to any community and industry, and applies to a range of words, not just iterate.

Think about the jargon you use every day. Find a better way to explain it. Otherwise it might sink into the vocabulary you use when talking to the real-world.

Avoid explaining it in slang or colloquialisms. Totally and LOL and literally and awesome are all jargon of some kind too. I’m still trying to remove them from my vocabulary.

Talk about it as if you were explaining it to your intelligent Grandma. That might just do the trick.

Even iterate on it until anyone can understand what you’re saying, if you must.

[This post was originally published on the Native Digital Blog]

08/5/11 -- Copywriting -- 0 Comments

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