Getting the right voice & tone

The role of content management has left the geek blogging world and entered the mainstream but I can’t help feeling that many companies struggle to get the copywriting sorted. I suspect this comes from an old-fashioned brochure-style of writing where the features and style of the company are over-presented.

This often falls out into email and social communication that can feel disconnected from the needs of the reader and may only scanned at best, ignored or even discarded at worst. It shouldn’t be like that and I thought I’d share a couple of pointers when it comes to writing copy. Feel free to disagree.

Writing is defined by voice and tone. The voice for an organisation should be pretty consistent, it conveys the organisation’s attitude, personality, character and values. The only exception I can think to this is when an individual author is narrating in the first person (getting more common) and in that case the voice is defined by the writer.

The voice is all about what you want to communicate, the brand values, your audience. Think backwards and ask yourself “If you asked your readers to describe your copy with a few adjectives, which words would you want them to choose?”. This also allows you to think about your audience.

This raises the first guide with copywriting. The writer must be stained with the culture and values of the organisation and understand the target audience.

The second part, tone, varies according to the subject matter and, more significantly the mood of the writing. It is often said that if voice is the personality, then tone is the mood.

Translating this into writing is the fun part.

EG1: You run a news section with a regular readership – you’re looking to tap into this audience. They will possess trust, interest, anticipation and maybe even curiosity so your writing should give them insight, teach them something cool every time they consume your content. You’re aiming to make them more informed (smarter) and to like you more. You can be casual and should probably have a sense of humour.

EG2: Forms and data acquisition pages need careful writing too, often they are primary source of income and the next link in the sales chain. Folks at this stage will have anticipation as they are expecting something – they may also be annoyed as they have to navigate form filling (half of first-time form fills fail – try saying that after a few beers!). Clearly ask for the information you need, and help the user understand what you need. Don’t include anything that could create confusion or distraction, but encourage new users as they fill out the form.

EG3: The magical (sic) Company Newsletter. Folks that read company newsletters typically admire the organisation and show interest and curiosity. They are also open to be being pleasantly surprised. They’re (almost) friends so treat them so and be casual with a sense of humour. Share the human side of the business and let the companies values shine through personal experience.

The role of humour

Whilst fantastically powerful it only works on folks that are friends and in the right mood. Anyone who is annoyed, frustrated or helpless will not appreciate this. As a result, you have to ensure that no elements of your copy, functions (we are talking about web-sites) and services are likely to annoy, or not work as expected.

By Martin Dower