April 21st 2016, posted by

5 common but unexpected things that go awry with tone of voice

Tone of voice can be tricky. And often the things that sound like a good idea are the things that cause the biggest problems

We’ve rounded up five common culprits here – along with what you can do instead.

  1. “Let’s do some engagement workshops.”

If you’ve been working on a tone of voice project for months, it’s really tempting to want to tell everyone about the work you’ve done.

Your agency might even suggest an ‘engagement workshop’. In other words, a 200-slide presentation where you take people through the background, the research, the creative process and, at the end of four long hours, reveal the tone of voice.

Resist. ‘Engagement workshop’ is a misnomer. That’s because a. it’s rarely engaging and b. it’s not workshop because no one does any actual work in it.

What to do instead: Get people writing

Even if they’re just short, make sure the workshops you run are:

  • practical so people get a chance to learn by doing.
  • relevant so they see how the tone of voice relates specifically to their role.
  • fun. After all, writing is one of the funnest (yes, funnest) things we do at work. And when people have fun, they’re less likely to write things like I will revert once this request has been actioned.
  1. “I want the style guide to cover everything.”

We once read a guide called ‘147 simple tips for writing at…’ (we’ll stop there to protect the guilty company). Who would ever read, let alone be able remember and apply all these rules?

Guidelines can never cover everything about the way we write, even if we want them to. But a bigger problem is that they don’t leave any room for people to be themselves.

Writing is a way to express our personality, even when we’re writing at work. So if the tone of voice guidelines feel like your company’s version of Newspeak, no one will follow them.

 What to do instead: Show don’t tell

Think of guidelines as a way to help and inspire people with their writing, not tell them off.

Also, make sure you summarise everything with a quick checklist, so people don’t have to read through the entire guide just to find out what an active verb is.

  1. “Let’s bust some grammar myths.”

You know you can start sentences with ‘And’. But many people in your company think it’s wrong, unprofessional, or a crime against proper English. And if they do start sentences with And, Mrs Pearson (their Year 5 primary school teacher) will draw a frowny face on their work.

This might seem like a minor point, but it’s the kind of thing that can hijack a meeting and de-rail a training course.

What to do instead: Be pragmatic

Some grammar myths are difficult to shift. In the immortal words of Queen Elsa from Frozen, let it go. If Peter in Compliance doesn’t want to start sentences with And, that’s fine. It’s much more important he stops writing like a 1970s solicitor than gets stuck on a grammar bugbear.

  1. “We want consistency, so everyone should get the same training.”

Being consistent is branding 101, right? So the logical step for many brand teams is to roll out the same tone of voice workshops for everyone.

In practice, these generic sessions don’t work. It’s no good showing marketing examples to HR, or showing customer emails to internal comms, because they’re not relevant. People need to see examples from their specific part of the business. If they don’t, they’ll switch off.

What to do instead: Tailor the training

Introduce the main principles of tone of voice, then tailor it to the people you’re training.

For example, you might focus on how to write with empathy for your complaint-handing team, and look at more creative techniques for the marketing team.

In every training session, make sure you have plenty of real examples to work on.

  1. “We need a tone of voice guardian.”

It’s easy to think that the best way to maintain consistency is to task one person (usually in the brand team) to be the sole ‘guardian’ of your tone of voice.

Bad idea. Not only does that person become known as ‘the Word Police’, they also have an impossible job. Large organisations produce hundreds if not thousands of communications every week. There’s no way one person can check them all.

What’s more, nominating a tone of voice guardian can inadvertently encourage bad writing in other people. If they know someone will ‘tone of voice’ their work, they won’t put the effort in.

What to do instead: Find and train tone of voice experts

You probably know them already. They’re the ones who do a brilliant rewrite in training, or show they’re up for working on tone of voice because they love writing.

It doesn’t matter if writing isn’t part of their role. The important thing is that they get your tone of voice and want to help their colleagues to be better writers. And they’ll probably only need a bit of coaching to get them up to speed on how to give feedback.

The brand team is always there if they have any questions. But day-to-day these people are the ones who’ll keep tone of voice on track, because they’re giving regular, informal support to their colleagues.


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