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  • Denise Hamilton

Focus on Tone, and I'll Listen




Tone and voice are often described interchangeably, but these concepts have distinct meanings. Voice is about how a person or business communicates—the overall way they express themselves. Voice varies a lot, depending on personality, culture, education, and many other factors.


Think of tone as emotional. It’s specific to a particular message. While voice is constant, tone can change depending on the context and the emotional state of the speaker or writer. It’s a quality in a voice or written communication that reflects an attitude about a topic or an attitude toward the reader. Tone conveys happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, and even that unfortunate trend called “snarkiness.” More on that later.


Consider the song “What a Wonderful World,” written for, and first recorded by, the iconic jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong in 1967. Its political message was initially lost on many but its beautiful tone of hope wasn’t. Punk rocker Joey Ramone recorded a cover of it, released posthumously in 2002. His version also had a tone of hope and optimism, one that was uncommon in the world of punk rock. Same song; very different tone.


If you’re developing content for your business, you likely have a style guide with voice and messaging guidelines. But maybe you’re not sure what your tone should be. And what you see in the market today complicates your decision. Some businesses respond to crowded markets with snarky headlines – using a mocking, sarcastic tone that’s meant to sound clever and attract attention. If you’re going for “snark” as your brand, that’ll work. But what it says about your business is questionable. Snark conveys attitude, not reliability, innovation or intelligence.


There are many ways to find your tone, get attention and be true to your brand:

· Word choice: Do you want to be formal, informal, friendly or confident? Does it vary by culture? You might choose a single, defining tone. Put it in a headline and your tone is direct.


· Sentence structure: This can suggest urgency, confidence, hesitation or other emotions. Here’s an old favorite of writers that shows how structure informs meaning and tone: “What a man!” or “What? A man?” or “What. A. Man.”


· Punctuation: Use exclamation points, question marks and ellipses to elicit tones of excitement, confusion, skepticism and more. (My advice: Go light on the exclamation points – they’re often used as shortcuts to proper writing. The more you use, the less their impact.)


· Figurative Language: Metaphors, similes and other language can evoke creativity, imagination or playfulness. But don’t go overboard with the fancy wording. And stay away from idioms; they don’t translate well across cultures or languages. “Table stakes” is a good example. Businesses hijacked it from poker, which makes me wonder how many countries and cultures truly “get it.”


· Point of view: Is your business tone that of an objective speaker, subjective and opinionated, or sympathetic? What is your perspective on certain topics?


Most of these elements work together to create a tone related to your brand – whether you address them or pretend they don’t matter. Remember: A flat, unemotional tone is still “tone.” Find the tone that strikes the right chord for your target market. And listen for it in your writing because your readers will hear, too.


Song of the Day: What a Wonderful World, Joey Ramone



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