Some problems with ‘tone of voice’

Great little vox pop on the 26 website. Editor Nick Asbury asked: ‘Business language is a rich breeding ground for new buzzwords and phrases: What’s the best or worst you’ve come across recently?’ I particularly enjoyed Shano Cotechini’s musings on jargon as manure, Jim Davies saying misuses of ‘Journey’ set him off, and Mike Reed finding sustenance in ‘hastle’. The other comments are good, and you can comment yourself. Here’s what I said:

There’s been lots of coverage of business jargon in books and articles, and I think people are a little more conscious of their language as a result. Even ‘going forward’ seems to be going backwards. Having said that, businesses do seem to be stretching for words to describe the way different groups of people communicate and connect. There’s much talk of us ‘interacting’ with each other, which conjurs up scenes of humans dressed as Cybermen. Probably the most discussed pieces of jargon in my neck of the woods are ‘tone of voice’ and ‘brand storytelling’, which have become buzzwords emanating from practically every mediocre brand agency. I’ve just seen that The Apprentice contestant Alex Epstein – who was recently Germ-O-Nated by Sralan – has set himself up as a ‘brand storyteller’. Business jargon is still several leagues below public sector gobbledygook, however. Fans of Carry On might enjoy some of the terms that issue forth from local government, like ‘Citizen touchpoints’, ‘pump priming’ and ‘deep dive’. But my favourite public sector phrases are ‘predictors of beaconicity’, ‘goldfish bowl facilitated conversations’ and ‘meaningful reusable interactivity’. There’s that word ‘interactivity’ again.

Tone of voice is a specific service, not just an add-on to copywriting

Some have queried my inclusion of ‘tone of voice’ and challenged me to come up with something better (I can’t). I do think ‘tone of voice’ is useful when applied to the spoken word or a piece of writing, but it’s becoming less useful when describing a specific service provided to clients. Lots of copywriters have added tone of voice to what they say they offer, but they don’t necessarily have expertise in analysing, assessing and improving a company’s tone – they’re simply good, bad or mediocre at writing bits of its communications. In other words, they can apply a tone but not necessarily create one. Meanwhile, design agencies are adding tone to their list of services, but few have any real understanding of it.

Getting to the heart of how a company uses words is a substantial job, and not every writer or agency can do it. For example, a major tone of voice programme can be fraught with dull but deadly obstacles to change, from office politics to compliance restrictions or a sprawling network of offices; do many copywriters understand how to address issues like this? Could many design agencies create a writing training programme for employees?

So ‘tone of voice’ is becoming degraded to the extent that it’s unclear what someone means when they say they offer it, and that’s a problem. It reminds me of a time when designers started to say they offered ‘branding’ when, in fact, they created logos. Talking of loose language, in the summer I wrote about how a bureaucratic mindset poisons language. This wasn’t simply another rant about jargon; I was trying to point out that public sector organisations often create anti-gobbledygook initiatives without addressing the fundamental reasons why bad language is generated in the first place. It’s not enough to get someone in the communications department (or an external consultant) to produce a guide criticising ill words and promoting plain English – the root causes of complex, confusing and wasteful writing go too deep to be resolved by that.

Back in July, my feeling was that PR noise about plain English would increase in direct proportion to the growth in austerity measures. A campaign that seemed to represent the public interest might help to dilute sentiment against the public body involved as it went about making cuts – a cynical measure for desperate times. In other words, when the public is scrutinising its representatives more closely than before, jargon might be a handy Aunt Sally. I wrote:

I expect we will see a number of public bodies trying to appear appropriately austere by shouting about jargon. I suggest we take what they say with a pinch of salt. In fact, we should be suspicious of their motives unless they say what they will do – or what should be done – to address it. Denouncing gobbledygook generates headlines and can be claimed as an ‘initiative’, but it requires more than words to solve a problem with words. Anyone can hold Predictors of Beaconicity up to ridicule; few seem able to address the root causes of such verbiage, including the inability of some in local government to put themselves into the minds of others.

On the 25th November, the Daily Telegraph reported that Conwy Council in North Wales was ‘considering adopting’ a guide entitled Keep it Simple. The article didn’t interrogate whether such a guide is required, merely that the council is ‘considering adopting’ it. The journalist called in an independent view from the Plain English Campaign – a commercial company that provides writing and editing services to public sector bodies:

A spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign said it was good that the council recognised the need to keep language simple. “This is a move in the right direction,” she said.

Hold the Pulitzer Prize nominations list, we have a late entry.

In my view, public bodies should only launch ‘campaigns’, ‘drives’, ‘initiatives’ and ‘guides’ if they really are trying to make a lasting improvement to their language. And journalists should ask tougher questions of public bodies when they start to make noise about gobbledygook. The likes of  Conwy Council may well be genuine in their desire to improve their language, but the proof lies in substantial actions as well as words, or the possible adoption of some words.


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