Tone. Tone! Tone. TONE. It’s easy to understand, but far more difficult to put into words. When you speak face-to-face with somebody, you have a whole host of non-verbal communication to work with – body language, facial expressions, attitude – but aside from the actual words spoken, the tone of voice which someone uses has a huge part to play in what the listener actually hears. This is something which most of us understand without having to analyse it too much. On the other hand, when you’re reading, there aren’t any social cues to help you understand how the person or business behind the writing feels.
A contribution from Jarlath, who has some experience in copy writing, journalism, and creative writing. He is from Northern Ireland and is based in Dublin.
More often than not, the job of the copywriter is to create the correct tone by carefully choosing how to phrase the client’s core message every time they are creating content. So short of sign-posting every change in tone with gimmicky punctuation, how does a copywriter make sure they’re putting the message across in the correct way?
Knowing the Client
A great place to start is understanding the client’s brand identity. Are they hip, urban, smart? Traditional, trustworthy, conservative? Or global, modern, friendly? How a client identifies their core values says a lot about how they present themselves to existing and potential customers. It’s safe to say that a client that identifies as traditional and conservative probably won’t want to use youthful slang in an advertising campaign. On the other hand, a global brand might be keen to incorporate new trends in language to showcase their placing in the market. It’s always worth becoming familiar with the public face of the client – advertisements, social media and so on – as well as the in-house style, if possible. That will give you a feel for the language you should be using, and, just as importantly, the language you should be avoiding when writing for that particular client. Once you understand the image a client would ideally like to embody, you’re much closer to nailing the correct tone as a content creator.
Who is it For?
The next point to consider might sound obvious, but who you’re writing for can profoundly change the tone of what you write. If you’re writing for professionals in their field, it’s important to research current trends and buzzwords, as you can assume a certain amount of knowledge in that area. This keeps the tone professional, up-to-date and informed. However, if you’re writing for the general public, you will generally want to avoid any kind of business jargon, as it can be confusing, opaque and patronising to outsiders. One of the trickiest things to get right is reducing the level of formality in correspondence with customers. A good trick is to read the content out loud, and hear for yourself if it sounds like something you would say in real life. Try saying the same thing in a few different ways, until it sounds conversational, while keeping the core message intact. Remember, whether writing for professionals or the layperson, you should always strive for clarity. Using fewer words keeps the tone crisp, and if in doubt, aim for a friendly professionalism – this is the ideal of most business writing. Ask yourself, would I be happy to read this if it arrived in an email, letter or report? Even unwelcome news can be couched in language that softens the blow and makes the reader feel more like a person and less like an afterthought – which brings us to the most important element to consider when thinking about tone.
Why is it important to modify tone when creating content? Well, while factual information is relatively easy to get right, tone helps shape how the customer or employee feels about the business behind the message. In an increasingly corporate and globalised world, it’s easy to feel as if businesses have lost touch with the people who actually work for them, or use their products and services. Getting the tone right when addressing those people is a chance for business to show their human side. It shows that they understand where their workers and customers are coming from. It shows that they get them. And not only is that simply a nicer way to do business, it also helps a business to grow, by fostering good relationships with the very people who keep that business thriving.
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