There’s a lovely example of how tone of voice works in an episode of Have I Got News For You. They’re discussing the class system, and how a new survey has identified seven classes in the UK as opposed to the traditionally acknowledged three.

Alexander Armstrong, who is hosting the episode, asks if anyone is working class and one wag replies “Rather!”.

Cue hysterics from the panel and the rest of the audience. It’s a superb joke because the person who shouted “Rather!” is playing against accepted norms. We would expect someone from the upper reaches of the socio-economic scale to shout “Rather!” as opposed to a person from the so-called working classes.

In this instance they were looking for people to laugh at their uttering. In this case, the inappropriate language is amusing.

It can be dangerous for a company to deviate from their tone of voice. Unless it’s a) done well and b) for a good reason.

If you pull it off you can make it really work for you. Like this ad for The Economist. Traditionally the Economist used a red background with simple white type on it. Here they changed one simple thing and created something much bigger – the advertising equivalent of synergy.

Full of surprises - rather!

Full of surprises – rather!

Tone of voice can seem simple. However it can be hard work to make sure that all your communications speak with the same voice. But it’s always worth doing. Brands that succeed do so in no small part thanks to getting their tone of voice right. But beware, simplicity can be deceptive. With hard work and diligence it’s achievable, and it can lead to great rewards for your brand (and your profit margins).

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“Writing is thinking on paper.”

William Zinsser

We all know how to think. And most of us are reasonably OK at talking. We should try to write as we talk. Every business, every organisation and (I believe) every individual needs to influence, persuade and convince people on a regular basis. Life is a series of competitions, so we need to be clear what it is we offer that’s different/better/faster/greener than anyone else.

We have the ability to shape these discussions using words. They’re free, everyone can use them and there’s almost no limit to how you can arrange them to carry your message. Stay true to the way you speak and you’ll not go far wrong. And never fall into the trap of thinking that shouting louder is the way to go. In the long run it will only hurt your brand.

Wise words from Bishop Desmond

Wise words from Bishop Desmond

Our tone of voice is the way we write and speak – it’s what we say and how we say it. Your individual company will know what it wants to say (or it really should know).

How you say it should be determined by your company’s personality. And you can decide how you want to sound. Fresh. Fun. Intelligent. Knowledgeable. Attitudinal. Even dull. That’s right, dull.

Leica Cameras has just made “the most boring film ever”. It’s pretty much 45 minutes of an engineer polishing the aluminium frame of one of their cameras. But it’s a stroke of genius. I’m pretty sure they don’t really expect people to watch the whole 45 minutes. But it does say very quickly that they’re a company that does things properly. Laboriously, meticulously and, yes, boringly. The antithesis of the modern tech companies. And justifying (probably) the vast cost of their equipment. (They’ve also had a huge amount of media coverage due to their unusual approach.)

You need to know your vision. How does your company see things? Where are you heading? And how you want to get there. You need to know your values. What are the principles that your company stands for?

A green energy company will have vastly different values, principles and aims than an oil company. But they may share a number of these, too. Once you take all your values together you’ll be able to work out who your company is, and how you want to communicate with your customers. Once you know that, you can develop your personality.

Imagine the company as a person. How would they act? What would they say? Would you want to have a chat with the company if you met it in the local coffee shop? Ask yourself simple questions about how you want to talk to your customers and you’ll not go far wrong. One place that companies seem to enjoy having a playful tone is on their 404 errors page. Here are some lovely examples.

The North Face 404 message - beware the goats

The North Face 404 message – beware the goats

Space Invaders 404 error - making mistakes more fun

Space Invaders 404 error – making mistakes more fun

Pants down 404 error message

Pants down 404 error message

They’re all different, yet all playful. They realise that this is an opportunity to show that they’re humans – and that they have a sense of humour. As a slight aside, I hate when an error message says “You may have typed the address incorrectly.” What that’s saying to your customers is that you think it’s their fault. For me, that’s a really poor way to handle things. If you must cede some of the potential blame, then try to do it nicely. Something like: “If you typed the address into the address bar, check that it’s spelled correctly.” Or, better still, don’t blame your customer. Help them solve the problem. Give them a link to contact you so you can help them.

It’s a smart move to always put yourself in your customers’ shoes. If you’re selling pacemakers it’s unlikely that a cockney barrow-boy is the tone of voice you’ll be aiming for. Likewise, if you’re selling sports shoes you’ll probably not want to sound like Lord Hailsham. Or perhaps you do. It’s up to you. Just make it true to your brand and make it genuine.

And always, always talk to your customers truthfully. The public are like elephants when it comes to lies – they never forget. Which leads me neatly to a great quote from one of my favourite art directors. Helmut Krone worked at DDB in the 1950s and 60s. He is responsible for much of the groundbreaking Volkswagen advertising that changed the way a whole industry talked to its customers. He said: “A little admission gains a great acceptance.” You can see this philosophy at work in a lot of his advertising. Here are just a few of the beautiful VW ads that he gave to the world.

VW. Lemon.

VW. Lemon.

VW. Think small.

VW. Think small.

VW. Makes your house look bigger.

VW. Makes your house look bigger.

And what he meant was that by acknowledging you’re human and that, occasionally, you’ll make a mistake means that your audience see you as a person like them. And that way they’ll be more trusting of you and your messages.

Innocent Drinks has a tone of voice that is often held up as being perfect for their audience. It’s fun, playful and shows that they’re not too worthy. Like this little idea they’ve added to their cartons. (Innocent Drinks went from start-up to selling the company to Coca-Cola within 15 years – making each of the three founders a reported £33 million each. So there’s money to be made from getting your tone of voice spot on.)

Innocent Drinks. Making bottom jokes.

Innocent Drinks. Making bottom jokes.

Try it. Talk honestly to your customers. Give them the warts and all story. You’ll find they’ll like you more for it, as will your finance director as your profits increase.