Tone of voice: it really is about how you say it

You can’t just make up words. Well, actually, you can. We do it all the time; put two words together to make a new word. I present to you the social media lingo known as ‘headdesk’ (or my preferred iteration, ‘deskface’). We reappropriate words, too – ‘bae’ will now forever* (*this decade) mean your beloved, and not a Dutch word for poo.


Companies do it as well. I’ve been working on a big project lately with international copywriters, who’ve remarked my job is significantly easier just because English is much more malleable and lets you make things up. As we’ve seen with the aviation industry recently, however, euphemisms designed to present the corporate tone of voice often end up reinventing words in unintended ways.


Over the past couple of years I’ve become a bit of a travel nerd, and have ended up with status on BA (well, depending on your viewpoint – it’s only Bronze!). So I’ve been reading with interest the current service enhancements BA have been making.


Unfortunately, it takes only a passing glance to realise these ‘enhancements’ are actually cutbacks masquerading under a poorly executed rebrand. At the wonderful Flyertalk, ‘enhancements’ has now become a mockery precisely because of how transparent the word substitution is (and how badly it’s failed). If your terminology is being openly mocked, it’s not doing its job.


And, as we all know, there’s now United Airlines and their already infamous interpretation of the word ‘re-accommodate’. At the time of writing over $255m had been wiped off United’s stock value. All because the head honchos decided lawyers knew how words would play better than PR professionals.


In the world of social media, what you say – or what to you want to say – doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you say it. And if your message is muddled, or at odds with what people can see in front of them, your audience will decide your message for you and vote with their feet.


Of course it’s easy to get tone of voice wrong in other industries too just by being a tad off, or trying to invoke something else that works a little too strongly. As I write, Harry Styles’ solo album has just been announced. But almost immediately it’s been noted that the social media tone of voice shares certain hallmarks with that of The 1975’s last album release, including, notably, the use of double backslashes. It’s… not subtle.


Whoever’s responsible for Styles’ social media has clearly at least considered tone of voice (unlike United). Only problem is, now double backslashes look like label shorthand for Credible Artistry, which doesn’t bode at all well for whichever artist wants to use it next. It somehow looks both overly curated, and like Styles is trying to rip off The 1975 rather than succeeding on his own merits/insanely huge fanbase (somewhat unfairly as Sign of the Times is actually rather good). *insert musical interlude*



How can brands – whether business or personal – avoid these pitfalls? It’s actually very easy. Lawyers are paid to tell you how to word things to avoid admitting liability, but wordsmiths will tell you how those words actually play in the real world – whether spoken or in print. Hire someone who’s spent years studying and practising words in the same way lawyers do, and listen to what they have to say. Because they’re the ones who understand what you’re actually saying, or trying to avoid saying, and how it’ll be received.


And if you’ve already got a great tone of voice that works, like the fine folks at Lost My Name or the legends that are Innocent, guard it with your bottom line. Because that’s where it has the most impact.


Copywriters know how to convey your message with truth, not just with approved legal speak. People – your customers, your fans – aren’t interested in what you want to say, or even in what you say. The only thing they care about is how you say it. So if you need to make up words to describe your brand, whether you’re an airline or a pop star, best get someone who knows what they’re doing.