Top TOV: Why an excellent Tone of Voice guide is a beautiful thing for copywriters

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

The copywriter has few allies in their working life. Keyboards filled with Hob Nob crumbs, a thoroughly well thumbed dictionary (with rude words bookmarked) and, probably the ally we rely upon most of all, the Tone of Voice document.

I say ‘ally’, at times (actually at very many times) a TOV document can be so drab it leaves the poor copywriter wanting to punch themselves in the face with a lamp.

But just this week I have come across what might be the finest TOV document i’ve ever encountered. I can’t say who the document belongs to but I can at least try and discuss why it was such a refreshing exception in a largely uninspiring field.

This particular document had a very definite sense of self, something that is essential to any TOV document but is lacking in a surprising number of them. At no point was there room for misinterpretation, here was an absolute pronouncement as to the spoken essence of the brand.

They made it perfectly clear that the way one should write for them should, at all times, be a conversation. We must write as we would speak, and if that means a relaxation of grammar or the occasional splitting of infinitives that would make your English teacher wince, then so be it. Tone is king and that allows no room for the inflexibility afforded by grammatical pedantry.

And the particular tone of theirs was one of fun. In my experience, levity is one of the most difficult tones to achieve through the written word. Too easy is it for copywriters to fall into the trap of mistaking energy for enjoyment. Few of us I suspect, have never encountered an especially contrived and over-anxious attempt at being ‘fun’ in copywriting.

But this TOV guide was far deeper and more considered in its definition of the ‘fun’ it wished to reflect and embody. It talked of passion – not in the way that the word has been cheapened by overwrought X-Factor contestants – but with an authenticity that gives a copywriter a true sense of why they believe in what they do and why they talk about it with such fervour.

There is often a separation between the people at the heart of brand and those charged with the task of communicating it to the world. In this particular example, this division was not to be found, and as a copywriter you find yourself as close to understanding the soul of the brand as even those who live within it every day.

It was a stark lesson that through such a compelling and evocative tone of voice guide, a brand can expect (and far more often will receive) copywriting that is a proper and powerful representation of them. Brands that fail in this respect can expect, and will deserve, far less.

Any copywriter who has ever encountered a similarly open and inspiring TOV guide will no doubt excuse your author’s unadulterated gush. Anyone else may very well be limbering up for the lamp punch.

Follow Andrew Boulton on Twitter @Boultini

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. His tone of voice is ‘baffled’ and ‘lazy’.

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