Guidelines on guidelines: how NOT to create a brand tone of voice document
May 18, 2012 2:48 PM
It all makes perfect sense.
When a company is going through a branding exercise, it is excellent practice to put together a guide to how the brand should speak - otherwise known as a "tone of voice" document. The idea is that anyone involved with the brand - whether it is the CEO giving a talk to shareholders or a marketing exec creating an email blast - should be confident that they are helping the brand to communicate in a tone of voice that is consistent with the agreed brand.
It's a straightforward idea. So why do so many companies do it so badly?
Usually, this guide refers back to the brand values, and explains how these can be reflected in the company's written output. Typically, it is then accompanied by key "value themes" that writers are encouraged to include wherever possible to reinforce the company's messaging.
Teaching grandma to suck eggs
Fine so far. The problem I have with these documents is that many of them then lazily go on to suggest examples of the style of English you should use. Happily patronising the reader within an inch of his or her life, these guides make the same sweeping generalisations about writing style which are at best misleading and restrictive, at worst, simply wrong.
The problem is that these GCSE-level writing tips have no place in a brand guide.
The aim of a branding strategy is to differentiate - and any guidelines document should help the brand to reinforce its difference. Not to make the same old patronising recommendations about style.
This is why I ask you - whether you are a copywriter, brand strategist, brand manager or student of best-practice branding - to avoid the following 'default' recommendations that appear in every such document.
1. You must avoid jargon.
Most guides will tell you that jargon is an obstacle to communication, and that you shouldn't use it. Rubbish. Using jargon can be an extremely useful shorthand provided your audience is familiar with that jargon. Jargon is a form of language - a sub-set of phrases and terms adopted by certain groups - because it aids communication (otherwise they wouldn't have bothered adopting it).
Of course, using heavily technical jargon when talking to a financial audience - or vice-versa - is not a good idea. But you may as well recommend that you don't use German when speaking to the Italian delegates. Jargon can improve communication as well as hinder it; the decision of whether to use it is not one that the "brand police" should be making.
2. Never say "endeavour" when you mean "try"
Another favourite recommendation is to dictate that English writers should use conversational English whenever possible. Say "now" instead of "at present". Say "talk" not "communicate". "Say 'truth' not 'veracity'. There are many examples. A multitude, even.
But again, is it really the job of the branding team to tell you what words to use? Do they know your audience? Do they know what you're writing about? Of course not. One of the reasons for the popularity and versatility of English is that we have so many options to choose from. We have Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic influences. We have a palette of synonyms with which to colour our writing that other languages can only dream of.
So, do we owe it to our brand to use our language to the full? To be expressive? Or to allow ourselves to beaten into using English 101 because someone at the branding agency told us to. Come on...
3. Use short sentences.
This has some merit. Short sentences can be punchy. Ungrammatical, sometimes. But punchy. But you know what? It gets tiring. And if anyone tells you. That you should. Do it. All the time. They. Are . Wrong.
4. Use active not passive voice.
"Your writing is appreciated by a lot of people."
"A lot of people appreciate your writing."
But you know what, more people will appreciate your writing more if you choose the active or passive voice because it suits (or doesn't suit) what you are trying to communicate. It is true that there are subtle differences between them, and that the active voice can be more direct and concise. If that is what you are aiming for, you will probably choose it yourself. And not because of the edict handed down from the Head of Branding.
Everyone should write well; only you should write like your brand
Now don't get me wrong. There may be a perfectly acceptable reason for including one or more of the above points in your brand guidelines. But be aware that the aim of any branding exercise is to help your brand to reveal its true identity. Not to teach people how to write. And in any case, if you recommend to employees, agencies and partners that they sound the same as everyone else, you're simply undoing all the good work you did in your brand strategy.
If you want to offer general advice on how to write professional-sounding copy, that's fine. Just call it a writing guide, not a brand guide because it does not do anything to make your brand distinctive.
And be careful who you talk down to, just in case they are an English graduate who is higher up the pay scale than you...