"You lucky bugger" on a post-it

Notes on tone

Why tone of voice is a stance, not a sprinkle

In this post, I’ll argue that it’s not useful to think of tone of voice as an ornament. Think of it as an attitude instead.

This post has been stewing for a while. Last summer I had some feedback (from an absolutely lovely client) that I found baffling. It led me to sit down and put into words what I believe to be true about tone of voice. I didn’t write it in one go though, which meant that my initial huff dissipated somewhat and my jumbled pile of blog notes ended up sitting in a draft doc for a while because life happened. And one day, as I was browsing through my former employer Velocity’s marketing blog, I saw that Doug Kessler had, of course, already written a piece that said something quite similar to what I was going to say. And had done it beautifully. Damn him.

That made me question whether the idea had ever been mine in the first place, or if maybe I’d already read Doug’s piece but had forgotten about it, and was thinking myself original when I really wasn’t. I didn’t like that thought and ditched the post.

Well, I had lunch with Doug last week and told him about it. He graciously encouraged me to write it anyway. So I did and here you go. (You can find his piece here, but I’d rather you read mine first).

Marketers are latching on to tone of voice – and that’s not always a good thing

Last year, I started working with a new client, who, during our first couple of meetings, kept emphasising how important tone of voice was for them. That they wanted to sound unstuffy and non-academic, and were happy to push the boundaries. That’s great, I thought. Let me at it.

The first couple of pieces I wrote had really low word counts, and not much room to develop any conversational copy while also including all the information that needed to be there. So it was only when I wrote a chunky ebook for them that I realised what they understood “tone of voice” to be.

Let me explain why I think they got it all wrong.

Your readers are tacitly allowing you to sell to them – under the condition that you also provide solid value.

So imagine your standard middle-of-the-funnel type ebook that includes buying advice for its readers – “here’s what you should be looking for when evaluating this kind of software”-type stuff. If you’re a B2B tech copywriter – and even more so if you’re a buyer and regular reader of such content – then you know that this buying advice isn’t entirely impartial. At some point, it will definitely play up a capability that sets the business publishing the ebook apart from its competitors, and emphasise how indispensable it is.

Now I think that’s fair enough. As a reader, you’re aware that it’s a branded ebook given to you by a business with a selling agenda – and you’ll forgive them for trying to sell to you if you still get good stuff out of it. That is if honest, useful advice and deep domain knowledge go along with the selling. It’s the tacit agreement that makes content marketing work. (Bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this).

Now add a sprinkle of tone of voice.

So with this ebook, I had a bigger canvas to develop tone of voice than I’d had with the previous pieces. I aimed for high energy, peer-to-peer, and no-nonsense, and – probably to ingratiate myself with my client – included quite a few phrases that I have now come to think of as “tone of voice cheats” (like calling the reader “you lucky bugger”, referring to software as their “cool new toy” and such. The kind of thing you get loads of from B2C brands like Innocent or Oatly). I hang my head in shame.

Because, as unintended consequences go, these things came to bite me on the bum. As you may have guessed, my client simply loved-loved-loved the cheaty bits – in fact, the main feedback on my copy was to dial those up to eleven – but they cared a lot less for the high-energy, peer-to-peer, and no-nonsense attitude.

They ended up asking me (twice!) to sprinkle in more cute-but-ultimately-hollow expressions. And they also had another amend: they wanted me to remove one particular bit of copy that I felt encapsulated everything we were trying to do with tone of voice in this ebook. It was the phrase in square brackets (x being my client’s category):

Invest in a platform specifically made for x. [We sell such a thing, so of course we would say this – but hear us out.]” 

Their reason for wanting it gone was that “it sounded too salesy”. I found that truly baffling. It’s the opposite of salesy. It’s a wink. It’s acknowledging that there’s a sales agenda, and promising that we’re not going to abuse the privilege of having their attention.

And now that’s exactly where I was going with the above: it’s this stance that I was trying to express with the phrase my client cut. The acknowledgment that both writer and reader are grownups and that we’re not going to bullshit each other. It’s the total opposite of a cheap verbal flourish, and I believe it’s the true essence of tone of voice.

Tone of voice is a stance

Tone of voice is an attitude that expresses how you feel about your audience. It’s made up of the zillion assumptions you make about them: about the world they live in; what they know and what they don’t; why you’re creating content for them; how you think they feel about your business; how much you think they might resist your message; and so on. That makes it incredibly complex. (Which is why it’s also hard to create tone of voice guidelines that are more than crude approximations.)

  • For instance, if you respect your readers’ expertise, you’ll write in a way that takes them seriously, without lecturing them.
  • If you think they’re pressed for time, you’ll keep it short.
  • If you think they might not understand that obscure accounting term you’ve devoted a chapter to, you’ll explain it in a non-jargony way.
  • And if you assume some of them might already have an [x] solution and are highly unlikely to buy yours, you might actually tell them that they’re not your key audience and offer them a kitten meme instead.

Real tone of voice is always there, whether you’re aware of your attitudes or not. It’s not something you sprinkle in after completing draft one. And that means that it can do you a disservice, too, because stance is nearly impossible to fake. Like an old water stain under cheap paint, a not-so-gracious attitude towards your audience (for instance, an overt sales agenda that’s trying to disguise itself) will always come through in your content. For example:

  • If you think your readers are dumb, you might resort to sweeping generalisations in your copy.
  • If you’re trying too hard to be liked, your copy might become cutesy or gymmicky (like mine did).
  • If you’re doing content for content’s sake, your readers will feel your lack of direction.
  • If you’re worried you’ll give away a secret, they’ll feel that you’re holding back on value. (Don’t worry about that by the way. In 99.99% of cases tech marketers aren’t talking about anything their competitors don’t already know).

And the thing is: these are the attitudes that make content deeply unsexy, threadbare, and weak. No amount of sprinkle will change that. Because they mean that you haven’t invested in a stance that’s worth your readers’ while.

So if you want to create impactful copy, make sure you do the hard work: check your knowledge about your audience, where you believe they’re at with their thinking, and how you feel about sharing your expertise. Sprinkles are cheap. Stance is gonna cost you. But it’ll pay, too.

Why you can’t just ‘manage’ content

There’s a job title schizophrenia in marketing. But we can fix the titles later. Let’s fix the thinking first.

I first published this post on LinkedIn some time ago (mostly because I didn’t have a website then)but I feel it’s worth repeating here. It talks a lot about how I feel businesses should start thinking about content – which includes never doing content just for content’s sake.

We’ve reached peak content. The point in time where pretty much every company’s verdict is: content seems to work, so we gotta do content, too.

As a consequence, there are tons of ‘content manager’ jobs going round right now. Across the board, businesses are creating these full time roles – hiring people to keep the content machine humming, and manage the creation of blog posts, videos, ebooks, whitepapers, tweets, the lot.

Businesses are asking for an impossible skillset

The problem is: the vast majority of businesses don’t really understand the skills and processes that go into content creation. And that’s why they’re asking for the impossible when hiring for that role. Let me explain:

Go to any job portal, grab a handful of “content manager” job descriptions and you’ll find them as delusional as most client briefs (You know the kind, where the goals are brand awareness, lead gen, uplift in sales, product launch, PR-ability, and a reduced waistline. There’s no budget, the deadline is tomorrow and the target audience is everyone. Oh, and make it go viral, will ya?). You might as well be headhunting a Siberian leprechaun.

Here are just some of the skills you’re supposed to bring:

  • Be a terrific writer and editor (with several years of experience writing for the xyz industry)
  • Know how to create all types of content (video scripts, “thought leadership”, blogs, short’n’snappy, social, long form, interactive, etc)
  • Have knowledge of desktop publishing
  • Be an amazing project manager, scrum master and organisational talent
  • Be able to run the overall content strategy and nail all the messaging
  • Be able to run social media for your business
  • Commission and review content
  • Understand programmatic
  • Be highly creative – but not precious
  • Have a deep understanding of marketing automation
  • Be a digital wizard who’s up to date with martech
  • Run the global roll-out of content campaigns
  • Have a passion for tech
  • Have experience managing budgets and timelines
  • Know how to track and measure a campaign
  • Be a great stakeholder manager
  • Be able to lead and mentor a team of juniors and get senior-level content out of them

Why is that a problem? Because, in more than a decade of agency-side copywriting and strategy, I’ve never met a terrific writer who was also a great project manager. I’ve never come across a marketing automation hero who would have been happy to commission, creative-direct, and proofread a video script. And I’ve rarely met a creative who wasn’t also a bit of a diva, and wouldn’t have been happy to throw all budget considerations overboard once they’d developed a big vision for a campaign. 

Unrealistic expectations of the person and their skillset aren’t the only problem, though. It’s not necessarily the workload either (though reading through some of those job descriptions makes you want to run for the nine-to-five hills). 

It’s the lack of focus apparent in them.

Few businesses can agree what content is, and what job it’s supposed to do for them. And seriously, the last thing anybody needs is more random acts of content. You can see it everywhere: everyone’s “doing content”. Few are doing it well. Most are doing it without a strategy. That’s what creates the famous deluge of crap that Doug Kessler has so articulately written about. We’re about to be buried in it.

The problem with ‘manager’

The only way out of the crap conundrum is a proper strategy: thought-through content concepts, creative direction, outstanding ideas, and editorial rigour. I.e. a plan. And one that allows you to create a few, really good pieces that hit the mark, not just a ton of stuff.

But the problem with the ‘manager’ job title (whether that’s for content or marketing, or content marketing or whatever) is that it pre-supposes that such a plan exists. Something your content manager can run with. And that’s rarely the case – so as a result, these managers often have no choice but to react to each and every request for content from within their business – which exacerbates the crap problem.

And that’s where those fuzzy job descriptions create a real issue, because the people you’re hiring to manage the content aren’t necessarily experienced in building such a plan.

Content management and content strategy are two different jobs.

I’ve been in an in-house content manager role myself. I’ve seen how hard it is to maintain creative and strategic integrity while staying on top of the production, briefing, revision and sign-off processes and fending of people’s requests for yet another “two-pager” for that one use case or prospect. There are two roles in that job: one is a creative and strategic one, the other is operational. And those roles require fundamentally different personalities and working styles. 

From conversations I’ve had with recruiters I’ve learned that they find it easier to fill the role with candidates that can manage content, while it’s a lot harder to find people who’ve been on the creative, strategic and execution side. That’s not a value judgement. As I said, you need both. My point is that whoever you hire, they’ll fall on one or the other side of the spectrum. And that means that you’ll either overwhelm the more operational types with a strategy and execution remit they’ve not been trained for, or you’re frustrating your strategic and creative resources with operational duties they’re likely not very good at and/or don’t enjoy.

And this much is clear: Conflating the two distinct roles in one ‘content manager’ title devalues them both.

So what’s a business to do?

I think for businesses hiring for a content role, the only way to solve this problem is to think hard about what it they really need, and prioritise that. And I believe that the recruiters that work with these businesses need to do the consulting bit and help them narrow that job description.

Here’s how I’d suggest businesses and recruiters should handle this:

Prioritise. Think hard and prioritise what you’re looking for. Do you need an ideas person or a manager? Do you need them to do the work, or to oversee it? Don’t make your job description a dumping ground for all the nice-to-haves.

Buy some outside expertise. If you decide you need a manager, get help with strategy. For instance, you could get a freelance strategist (like me) in for a few weeks to build you a solid plan (or, if you have the budget, get an agency that specialises in content). Their outsider’s view can be hugely valuable for defining your most important messages. It’s their creative capital.

Create the conditions for headspace. If instead you decide you need a strategist, help them manage the processes. A good project, marketing or account manager can keep timelines on track, giving your strategist that much-needed headspace.

Acknowledge and reward the mad skills. And finally, if you’re still set on finding that elusive creature that can do it all: be ready to accept that your recruitment process may take a while, and that you’ll have to pay a premium for a very rare combination of skills.

…And do let me know when you find them. I’d love to have a chat. We might even come up with the right job title for them.