What writing style, word choices should you use?
The hardest job I’ve ever done was writing and editing a microsite for H&R Block. It was designed to let survivors know how to handle taxes for their loved ones who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
I’m usually pretty confident about my writing voice, but this project left me feeling unsure. My usual brisk style obviously wasn’t going to do the job.
How do you know what your voice should be? How do you define it so all the project contributors are using the same tone in writing?
1. Define your voice.
First, describe your organization’s/executive’s/channel’s voice.
What is it now? What would you like it to be?
Decide upfront what the right voice is for this piece:
- Individual or institutional?
- Bureaucratic or — as Stacey Cox, manager of internal communications at CenterPoint Energy — calls it, “business casual”?
- “Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?” asks William Zinsser in On Writing Well.
In fall 2001, H&R Block had just completed a rebranding effort. The new brand was “not your father’s H&R Block.” The voice of its main site was brisk and hip — occasionally even a little flip.
Not right for our 9/11 microsite, clearly.
How do you know what is right? The perfect pitch depends on your:
- Subject matter
So start with some descriptors. Do you want your message to be technical or accessible? Formal or casual? Dry and factual or witty and playful? You might use a simple scale like this:
What’s your tone of voice?
Scale it: A simple scale can help you determine what your tone is now — and where you’d like it to be
Whatever you decide, do decide. Commit to a voice, then stick with it.
So what tone can communicators use to create a voice that’s not too buttoned-down and stand-up-straight? One of my clients makes scientific instruments. Its descriptor: “accessible expertise.” I think it’s perfect.
For the H&R Block site, we wanted a voice that was warm, knowledgeable and empathetic to help survivors manage a difficult job during a traumatic time.
2. Give it a name.
Next, give your voice a name. That will give you a shorthand for talking about your tone to management, reviewers and other writers as well as helping you choose the right words or phrases.
If there’s a person in your organization (or outside of it, for that matter) who embodies the tone you seek, feel free to use her name.
Among the names that have come up during my workshops and consulting:
- For a corporate library, the descriptor was “your articulate, geeky friend.” The name: Alex Trebek.
- For a university recruiting site, the descriptor was “your favorite professor, who wears a sports coat and tennis shoes.” These communicators used the name of a popular professor on campus.
- For H&R Block, we used: “Uncle Frank, your favorite uncle, a retired CPA. He sits down with you and says, ‘Honey, let’s get through this. First, write your name at the top of the form.’”
Now, Alex Trebek, Professor Popular and Uncle Frank never showed up in the messages themselves. These are just internal names you’ll use to focus contributors and reviewers on the right tone.
3. Use your tone.
Your descriptor and name should make it easier to write and edit copy and manage the review process. When H&R Block accountants wanted to replace our accessible, friendly prose with IRS-ese, for instance, we’d just say, “That doesn’t sound like Uncle Frank.”
End of discussion.
Your descriptor and name also keep writers on the same page. After all, you don’t want your message to end up sounding like your crazy Uncle Frank, who has a different personality on Thanksgiving than he has on Christmas.
Whether your message should be playful or serious, before you write the next word, determine and communicate your voice and tone.
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