"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.