Stick to your tone of voice – especially when you’re writing about the tough stuff

Creating difficult communications

Creating a new tone of voice for your organisation is a hugely fun and creative exercise. Everyone gets excited and has a go at writing in a completely new and more engaging way.

In the first few days and months, while you’re writing about easy, happy subjects – a new product or service, advertising a new role, sending invitations or creating materials for speeches and events – you keep the tone of voice going.

But sooner or later you’ll have to write something you really don’t want to write. Something distinctly unhappy and un-fun – like a response to a complaint, a press release about poor results, a disciplinary or consultation communication – and suddenly, you don’t want to use your tone of voice anymore and you revert to formal.

Why does this happen?

Whether or not we’re conscious of it, we all convey our closeness to a subject with the language we use. If we’re excited and highly motivated by something, we’ll describe it simply and fluidly, using shorter words and sentences.

On the other hand, if we really hate what we’re communicating, our natural, instinctive reaction is to push it away from us, using the third person, the passive voice and longer, more formal-sounding words.

If we say:

I’m so sorry our delivery service put the flowers you ordered in a wheelie bin.

It feels very close, and like we’re personally accepting responsibility for what happened. This can feel uncomfortable. And if you’re a lovely person who hates the thought of letting a customer down, this is especially true.

So instead, there can be comfort in writing statements like:

It has come to the attention of ACME plc that your order No: 546789, placed on May 1, was delivered to an inappropriate safe place. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused.

The author of the second example could feel a lot more comfortable. “It wasn’t me,” they’re saying, “I didn’t leave your gift for your mother in a bin like a total idiot and make her think you’d forgotten her special day. It was the process. The process let you down, not me. And in any case, maybe it wasn’t a special occasion – so I’ll only apologise if there was inconvenience. And who knows? Maybe there wasn’t…”

What’s the effect of abandoning tone of voice in difficult situations?

As a commercial communicator (and actually, we’d advocate as any type of communicator), your duty isn’t to yourself. It’s not all about allowing yourself to feel protected and comfortable. Instead, your duty is to your audience. What do they need to know and how do they need to know it?

The answer is they need to know it in your tone of voice – because your tone of voice should be aligned to your brand. When it matters most, it allows you to speak to your audiences in a recognisable and genuine way.

Otherwise, your customers will only see your friendly side when you’re selling them things… and when things go wrong, you’ll lapse into formality and business speak and the rest of it will look like a sham.

Internally, the effect can be corrosive too. Because if your colleagues begin to see examples of stiff, formal language emerging around them, they’ll feel less confident about using the tone of voice themselves… and before you know it, your brand will lapse back into patchy, inconsistent ways of communicating.

How can a friendly tone of voice be appropriate in difficult situations?

Sometimes when we’re creating tone of voice, we’re working from scratch with clients, building a verbal identity that completely aligns with their brand and purpose. Other times, we step in after an initial attempt has been made to create tone of voice.

A common reason we find for tone of voice not working is when no flexibility is built in.

We believe tone of voice is a direct expression of an organisation’s personality – and it should work similarly to the ways we each express our own individual personalities with the words we choose and use.

This business of language expressing personality is well documented. It’s how organisations like the FBI can profile an individual based on the words they type on an internet forum or social media.

We all have words we prefer, words we don’t like… and our own little quirks of speech. They give away a lot about the type of person we are, and the type of relationship others are likely to be able to have with us.

As individuals, we instinctively know when to unleash the full force of our personality – and when it’s more appropriate to rein it back in. So if we’re attending a funeral, for example, we tend to think before we speak. We also speak more slowly and limit the range of vocabulary we use. At the other end of the spectrum, if we’re out with family and friends, we’re more spontaneous. We speak faster, use more colourful language and speak with greater cadence and rhythm.

Whether you’re in a serious situation or a fun night out situation, you’re still yourself – and the FBI would probably still be able to profile your personality based on the words you use. But you’re appropriate for the situation.

At Wordtree, we call this ability to dial personality up and down – and to be appropriate – Volume Control®. And we build Volume Control® into every tone of voice we create. Which means that your brand can do a “polite and reserved” version of its brand voice whenever it needs to.

So don’t ditch your tone of voice

Let your teams know that serious – or Low Volume – situations are the ones where tone of voice will really help your customers see just how much you’re on their side. Support people who feel awful about writing bad news. Invest in training for your teams – and invest in professional writing support.

And as ever, if you want to chat to us about tone of voice, you know where to find us.

You may find these resources useful too:

Find out about how we create tone of voice in our book

Why your tone of voice needs sponsors

Changing language means changing behaviour

Why you should leave train-the-trainer until last

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