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Why tone of voice gurus drive Porsches

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

Prick your ears up.

I’m about to share with you five pieces of tone of voice advice.

Advice for which large organisations have collectively paid their authors millions.

Ready?

1. Use short sentences.

2. Avoid jargon.

3. Write in the active voice.

4. Use personal pronouns.

5. Don’t patronise your reader.

You can make your cheque out to—

What? You didn’t think that was worth paying for?

But I’ve read those same five gems in every brand book I’ve been given in the last twenty years. (Including three last month alone.)

I’ve sat in meeting rooms while brand consultants explained them.

And I’ve been asked to follow them in writing copy for websites and emails.

Now, listen, sunshine.

I don’t, actually, give a flying fuck what you think. All right?

I gave you the advice. Now you pony up.

Or maybe you want to spend some quality time with my mate, Vince.

You’d like Vince. He’s friendly. Real friendly.

Course, Vince’s idea of friendship usually ends up with someone spurting the old claret, but, hey, you said you wanted to meet him, didn’t you? WELL, DIDN’T YOU?

Oh, so you want some real tone of voice advice. Well, here’s the thing—

CLICK!

Oh, gosh. I am most terribly sorry.

What on earth must you think of me?

My dear, that was simply the most inexcusable lapse in politesse.

Forgive me. I shall not sleep a wink, not one wink, until I know you have.

How else am I possibly to—

CLICK!

OK, pay attention.

Tone of voice’s a tricky little sod.

We’re going in bombed-up.

Hold your fire till my signal.

Watch your six, too. Plenty of gerunds dug in on the ridge.

CLICK!

Whatever!

Like, tone of voice is so over.

You’re not my bae. Get woke.

I, like, unfollowed you.

CLICK!

Now, I don’t know if you realise this, but tone of voice is, in fact, a misnomer. In 1965 the phrase wasn't even in use at the largest advertising agencies. I think you’ll find that it was John Simmons who wrote the definitive text but of course he was only following in the footsteps of—

CLICK!

Comrades of the keyboard!

Let us strive to hit our tone of voice quotas again this month.

Pedantic encirclement must not be allowed to triumph over copywritingism.

The running dogs of lexical laxity are even as we speak—

CLICK!

There are many gradations on the combination lock of tone of voice.

And just like a safe, they are hard to crack.

But not impossible.

The five gems with which I started this piece are nothing more than table stakes for a writer.

You bring them or you don’t play.

The hard work, the interesting work, the fun work, comes afterwards.

When a charity, an engineering firm and a management consultancy all want to sound expert, passionate and innovative, how are we to tell them apart through their tone of voice?

Not, I would suggest, by writing short sentence in the active voice that use “you” and “we”.

I live in hope of a client’s sending me a brief calling for me to make them sound like Ray Winstone.

Or a California valley girl.

Or the headteacher at a crusty 1950s prep school in the Home Counties.

Failing that, I will stick to the failsafe, bombproof, armour-plated, LBD of tone of voice and write in a way that sounds like a friendly human being having a conversation.

Now, anyone want to pay me £50,000 to write that down?

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