Thursday, November 13, 2008

Can one 'tone' fit all?

There's a good debate happening on the Communicators in Business freelance forum at the moment about tone of voice.

The first posting said (in part).....

A company I am working with has just adopted a new "Tone of Voice". It has hired a "Tone of Voice" consultant and we are all told that this is how we will now write, whether we like it or not.

The ToV will be used for ALL communications and contains such nuggets as: From now it will be "XX are" not "XX is" as it is more inclusive. In fact, forget the "XX are" - from now on it will be "We are" in all communications, even if we don't say who "we are" actually is and it is not attributed to anyone.

We are to use contractions wherever possible, so in comes "we've", "I've" "we'll", "they're".

All sentences must be between 15-20 words long and we must stop using boring, banal quotes from managers. While I agree with him, having spent 25 years playing ping-pong with managers during a sign-off procedure is there not a point where you just have to accept them?

All features must show an element of "recognition" wherever possible. That is someone must be "recognised" for doing "something". Everything must be "energetic".

So the question is, do you forget 25 years of best practice and journalistic theory and concede defeat? Or do you wave ta-ta to a contract?

I know the writer and feel for him - especially as this tone of voice stuff seems to have been created elsewhere and foisted on the professionals working in and for the communications team.

My contribution to the debate stated: If we're doing our job and identifying the right internal audiences and the right means to connect with them, the tone of voice should follow that segmentation of audience and media so that the information is presented in a way that's familiar for the audience and prompts them to action. So, our skill surely is to understand how our internal communities communicate among themselves and tap in with a style and tone that connects rather than jars.......That's a hugely long-winded way of saying one size can't fit all, and imposed tonal rules set themselves up for failure.

I was doing a job for one of the big banks over the summer and was presented with a set of style/tone guidelines that looked set to make everything sound like a cross between 'Dick and Dora' (that'll be lost on anyone under 40...) and the instructions for an Airfix model kit. The 'rules' worked wonderfully well for conveying procedural information and 75 per cent was just common sense. However, they were too restrictive for presenting guidelines to managers and senior execs on how to manage change and simply didn't give the scope to connect with that audience in a way that would actually get them to read the stuff and then bring it into their own working lives.

Anyway, my internal client backed me over their comms team - and have come back to me with more work subsequently.

I have no problem with working inside a well thought out and articulated employer brand. But visual identity and tone of voice are just tiny pieces of the Employer Brand since the 'EB' (as my consultancy friends call it) is what differentiates the organisation from others. It's far more about identifying, attracting and retaining people who share the organisation's ethos and values. Thus EB covers culture, leadership, environment, performance, development and reward - and communication is a support and enabler to all of these.

Those brand consultancies trying to impose one tone of voice on an internal organisation miss a trick. While it may be essential to have a single solid presence in the minds of consumers, we tend to see our own organisations as a collection of divisions, teams and individuals, all with their own personalities. We're interacting with them daily - not once in a while at the point of purchase. Consequently, the real trick is to give people within organisations the skills and tools to communicate effectively and with personality. Great guidelines are useful and can be supported by IC professionals. But imposed 'one size fits all' rules stifle and breed a million little work-rounds.

So, I'm pretty much against 'tone of voice' rules internally - unless they're part of a far more encompassing and flexible 'cultural DNA' practice. It's one avenue where the rules of marketing don't translate internally. Good practice shared widely is one thing. Po faced rules are quite another.

No comments: