Thursday, 8 September 2016

Why tone of voice should be about the brand - not just writing well

Tone of voice guidelines should help make a brand unique. But all too often they consist of generic writing advice arranged under me-too values. Here are five common brand values along with the standard advice that’s typically offered up.


Also known as ‘Warm and friendly’, ‘Approachable’ or ‘Personable’. Guidelines with this brand value encourage you to use accessible, non-corporate language and write like you speak. You’ll achieve this by referring to your organisation as ‘we’ instead of the company name and using contractions like ‘it’s’. To sound friendly, you must address the reader as ‘you’ rather than with the remoter, third-person ‘his’, ‘her’ or ‘they’. All good advice, but every consumer brand and most B2B ones are doing this. It’s hygiene. You won’t differentiate your brand with this one.

Barnaby Benson tone of voice


Also goes under the names ‘Open’ and ‘Honest’. Advice for sounding ‘Straightforward’ include favouring short words over longer ones, avoiding abstract words, explaining technical terms and making sure you stick to just one idea per sentence. Commendable writing advice – essential, even. But it provides nada for a brand hoping to stand out from the crowd.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Let advertising direct your tone of voice

Any tone of voice guidelines should look to the brand’s advertising for direction. Most don’t and their TOV suffers for it.

Let me state two true observations. Then see if you can spot the glaring inconsistency they reveal.

  • One: any brand’s advertising campaign is the highest profile communications a brand has. It therefore sets the tone of the brand’s voice as it’s the thing most consumers think of when they think of the brand.
  • Two: most tone of voice guidelines are not written by the advertising agency and do not significantly influence the creative direction of the brand’s advertising.

The disconnect between these two statements struck me last week when I was asked to create a tone of voice guide that stipulated the advertising headline style and structure – very precisely. Wow, I thought, the ad agency isn’t going to like this! We’re telling them what their next campaign will look like. More than that: we are telling them what all their future campaigns will look like.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The delicate art of writing LinkedIn copy

This month's blog discusses the dos and don'ts of LinkedIn language. Whether it's news, networking or negotiation - it's not just about what you say, it's about how you say it.

Though the social media credentials of LinkedIn were much maligned by the Twitterati when they heard how much Microsoft had paid for it, Linkedin is a useful medium.

It’s great for unabashed professional networking. And it’s perfect for setting out what your company does and what makes it different. However, it is a strange beast which requires a certain style of writing.

So, who’s getting it right on LinkedIn?
According to LinkedIn, who’ve released their own top 20 list of the best company sites, Coca Cola and IBM are examples of best practice - they’ve become go-to sites for industry news, staff incentives, employee opinions and job vacancies. And all using clear, concise copy.

However, The Four Seasons Hotel made it into the top five by publishing a weekly caption competition. While we’re sure this draws more consumer visits than a typical company profile, it isn’t very businesslike. And that reveals one of the dilemmas of business communications: how much should a company let its hair down and have a bit of fun when going social?
Don't let your hair down too much

The problem with most social media is that it calls for companies to be as informal as everybody else is online – and as garrulous. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter rate the frequency with which users post, rather than their actual content. But most businesses are fairly serious activities – with shareholders to serve, employees to support and customers to satisfy. Do these groups really want to see you messing about? 

How to speak LinkedInian
LinkedIn’s tip is to treat your company profile like any piece of marketing material and ‘make

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Five great websites that use copy to stand out

Our previous blog post – How to stop long-scrolling websites looking too samey – gave you the key to differentiating your brand: copy. But getting it right takes more than just a cheeky colloquialism. We’ve picked out five brands whose web copy puts them a cut above.

Evernote is a great little app that functions as a kind of collaborative to-do list. Its copy is razor sharp. As soon as you land on the page, you’re hit with the key benefit – Remember Everything. Instead of bombarding you with features and bells and whistles, it simply paints a picture of a world with Evernote. And in just 15 words, the subheader establishes the need for the product, the solution to that need and how the product will provide that solution. All in all: concise and compelling.

Friday, 29 January 2016

How to stop long-scrolling websites looking too samey

Long scrolling websites are great for browsing on mobiles and tablets – but not so handy for differentiation. Now that every website looks the same, brands must rely on their web copy to really set them apart. 

Remember the bad old days: inching your way towards a tiny link, hidden away in the corner of your phone’s screen?

Thank heavens for infinite scrolling websites. Responsive and easy to navigate, it’s no wonder pretty much every brand has adopted them. But therein lies the problem. Differentiation through web design used to be massive for brands. Now UX has trumped individuality.

This means a website’s copy has to shoulder more of the burden of differentiation. 
How to stop long-scrolling websites looking too samey
I don't want to fit in

Such a friendly bank! 
This is a challenging task at the best of times. But now it’s particularly tricky. Ever since brands started having perpetual ‘two-way conversations’ with consumers on social media, they’ve all wanted to occupy the same tonal territory: that of the chatty mate just out to do what’s best. 

Done well, this can be great. Done badly, it usually ends up somewhere between ingratiating and infuriating. At the moment, it’s done everywhere. So even if it’s well achieved, it’s frustrating differentiation.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Want a distinctive tone of voice? Introduce some constraints

Think constraints hinder creativity? Think again. The tighter the brief, the more creative the outcome. Especially when it comes to tone of voice.
There is a persistent assumption that in order to be creative, you need as much freedom as possible. In reality, the opposite is often true. The more constraining the brief, the easier it is for creativity to flourish.

The compass and the wilderness
A tight brief removes those nagging doubts about whether you’re on the right track or not. If you’ll forgive me an indulgent analogy: a tight brief is a compass in the Siberian wilderness. It won’t take you to your destination, nor will it prescribe the exact route you should follow. (Those decisions are down to you.) However, it will inform your choices at every turn. Each decision can be justified by the direction the compass points.

The analogy continues
A vague brief is the gesticulation of a passer-by in that same Siberian wilderness. You can still choose which direction to head. And you still might have some idea where you’re going. However, the further you press on, the more likely you are to get lost. At each turn, there’s nothing to support your decision to go left rather than right.

The analogy concludes
With your compass (or tight brief) in hand, once you’re sure you’re heading in the right direction, you can stop worrying and start to enjoy the journey. New possibilities open up, and you’re free to explore them without fretting about veering wildly off course. You can go back and forth until you’re sure that the route you’ve taken is better than all the others.

Monday, 26 October 2015

What does ‘engagement’ actually mean then?

Clichés like ‘engagement’ have lost their meaning. Avoiding them helps you think about what you’re really trying to say.

On the surface, buzzwords are harmless ways of easily describing an idea or its purpose. ‘Storytelling’, ‘Stakeholder’, ‘Engagement’… seemingly, these are words right for every occasion. But that’s exactly why they aren’t. Let me explain.

Vague never ages
It recently occurred to me that some words in the average teenager’s vocabulary are uncannily durable. Take ‘cool’. It’s been around for decades, yet it’s still the go-to choice for indicating anything intangibly positive. What mystical quality gives it such staying power? Perhaps the answer is indeed in its very intangibleness. It’s endured simply because it doesn’t denote anything too strongly.

Engagement is the cool of the corporate world. And not in a good way. A sort of slippery, catch-all, umbrella term, it’s used to denote anything vaguely positive without committing the speaker to any exposition of its form, nature or degree. As a bonus, it provides an easy escape from scrutiny.