Tone of voice is a more slippery concept than it might seem, but it’s at the heart of good copywriting, argues Tom Scott. It’s also an essential tool in selling yourself and your author brand.
If there’s one thing that writers for business seem to agree on, it’s the importance of finding the right ‘tone of voice’ with which to engage your audience. Take a peek inside John Simmons’ Invisible Grail, rapidly becoming a classic text of branding, and you’ll find it fairly brimming with the stuff.
But it’s only rarely that you’ll find tone of voice defined in any detail, and there’s a good reason. In the sense that business writers use the term, it’s about as easy to pin down as a conger eel with a pressing engagement elsewhere.
Linguists, it’s true, have a perfectly good definition of their own. The problem is that it’s all to do with the spoken language. To be more specific, with the pitch, volume, intonation and other vocalised characteristics of the speaking voice. In fact, it’s an important aspect of what’s known as paralanguage, which encompasses all those non-verbal aspects of spoken communication that are used to express attitude and emotion.
Tone and meaning
There’s no doubting that tone in this sense can have a crucial bearing on the way that a spoken message is received. In Blink, his fascinating book on how we use rapid, ‘cross-sliced’ impressions to read (or sometimes misread) situations and other people, Malcolm Gladwell reveals the factor that makes it most likely that doctors in the US will be sued for malpractice. It isn’t negligence, a propensity to misdiagnose or even a high patient mortality rate, but – you guessed it – the tone of voice in which they address their patients. No wonder the prodigious serial killer Dr Harold Shipman is often described by those who knew him as ‘soft-spoken’.
But writing, obviously, is quite different from speech. So perhaps when business writers talk about tone of voice, they’re merely reaching for another way of talking about style? ‘Style’ is a word with distinctly literary connotations, and maybe ‘tone of voice’ is just a copywriter’s sleight of hand, used to avoid having to introduce this high-falutin’ notion to hard-nosed commercial clients with little time – or money – for such limp-wristed fripperies? (‘If it’s style I want I’ll get in Trinny and bleeding Susannah. You I pay to shift product.’)
Up to a point, perhaps, but I think there’s rather more going on here than convenient euphemism. Style, as it refers to writing, seems a much more abstract beast than tone. It’s hard to imagine learned academics writing papers from essay help online on ‘Latinate Constructions in Milton’s Late Tone of Voice’.
Tone suggests something altogether more concrete, immediate, and – crucially – bound up with the sound of spoken language, its vocal resonance and pitch. Which brings us back to the nub of the problem. Because these, in the literal sense, are qualities lacking in naked words on a page – which are all that writers have at their disposal.
‘PIFFLE!’ I hear you cry, in shout-out caps. And yes, all right – point taken. But give or take a few tricks with the shift key and the liberal use of exclamation marks, isn’t the written word obliged to perform its secret ministry, like Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, ‘unhelped by any wind’?
Subtlety and power
Consider the following lines:
Liquorice tattoo turned a gun-metal blue
Scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.
Evocative, certainly. Arresting, even. But now consider the same words as delivered in person by their author, Tom Waits, at the opening of his magisterial Burma Shave. Now that’s what I call tone of voice!
Waits may be one of the greatest songwriter poets of the last fifty years, but without the inimitably gruff yet tender quality of his voice, the words seem almost feeble. And how could that yearning intensity be conveyed except by his voice? Aren’t copywriters – any kind of writers even – indulging in wishful thinking if they think they can achieve, by words alone, anything approaching this subtle yet transfixing power?
Well, perhaps. And looking at the sort of tone-of-voice guidelines typically issued by brand managers, one might conclude that subtlety hardly comes into it. It’s rare, these days, to find any brand that doesn’t insist on writing that’s fresh, direct, positive and friendly – though lately the crowd has been swollen by a gaggle of irreverent cheeky chappies and would-be mavericks, many of whom seem to have modelled their line in cod self-deprecation closely on that of David Brent in The Office (you can check out Wernham Hogg’s refreshingly humorous brand values in their online newsletter, edited by the great man himself). Which is all well and good, even if one sometimes longs for a brand that sets its sights at musty complexity or frosty hauteur. Just kidding, as DB might say.
Now, it’s fairly easy to see how directness, friendliness, etc. are important in establishing a good relationship with consumers. Nor is it hard to grasp how such values can be incorporated into writing that communicates the brand. What we’re really talking about here is indeed style – things like using contractions, avoiding long, complex sentences and passive verbs, throwing in plenty of personal pronouns and so on. But if that’s all that’s meant by tone of voice, why the fuss?
OK, then – here’s the beef. If copywriters really want to connect with their audience, then tone of voice – the way the writing sounds – is indeed essential, but also something that’s all too often neglected. And it’s about much more than a few stylistic wrinkles.
Hearing your words
The difference between lacklustre copy and the stuff that shines lies precisely in a writer’s ability to hear their words as they write them – and as they reread and rewrite them. People talk about musicians having perfect pitch, and some talented writers have something closely analogous to this. The rest of us have to work harder, but can, with practice, attune our inner ear to the nuances of tone and rhythm that are what bring good copy alive.
The fact is, the way that something is expressed textually can have a huge impact on the way it’s heard in a reader’s head. It can give the writing an aural personality. As crude examples, take these two sentences:
It was quite extraordinarily prominent.
It stuck out like the dog’s b*ll*cks.
In terms of literal meaning, they’re pretty much identical, but it’s hard to read either statement without assigning to it an attitude and even an accent (the exact voice will vary from reader to reader, but in my case it would be Brian Sewell for the first and Paul Hogan for the second). In other words, each expresses a certain personality, and when readers feel that a piece of writing is animated by personality, they’ll typically translate that personality into a voice.
Write in character
To help them do this – or rather to help them hear the voice you’d like them to hear – it often helps to have a particular person or persona in mind as you write, preferably one that’s likely to be known to your audience. It could be a newsreader, a DJ, an art-critic turned chat-show personality… Or, of course, an actor or a character created by one (but please, don’t let it be David Brent). What kind of vocabulary would they use? What kind of rhythmic cadences do their sentences fall into? If you can capture these aspects of their speech, your readers will pick them up and recreate the voice for themselves – or one not too far off it.
It also helps enormously to read your work aloud. You don’t have to make like Rory Bremner, but if as you read your copy it sounds stilted or unnatural, then something’s gone wrong with the tone – and it will sound false to your readers too. Incidentally, this is also a good way to make your punctuation snappier. Too often, poor punctuation is due to a failure to hear the natural rhythm of a sentence, and this can cripple otherwise fine copy.
If one persona doesn’t seem to be working, try another. To take an example from a few paras back, suppose that rather than blurting out ‘PIFFLE!’ in that bluff, Boris Johnson manner you’d interjected something on the lines of: ‘That’s just so… like, totally pants!’
But here I am putting words into your mouth. That’s probably not the sort of thing you’d say at all. Or me, for that matter – and it could be that there are some tones of voice that are so far from our own that it’s foolhardy to think we can reproduce them convincingly, fun though it may be to have a go. But that would be to raise the question of what your own voice, as a writer, might be – a can of worms for which I do not at present have an opener of adequate size or sharpness.
Anyway, you see what I’m getting at. It may be that, like the Bee Gees, words are all we have to take your heart away. And (again like the Bee Gees) perhaps we can’t hope to achieve the raw intensity of a Tom Waits vocal. But we can still make the written word sigh, murmur, lilt, declaim, whine, burble, chirrup – and perhaps just occasionally even sing.