In my last blog post, I stated my belief that the assertion “Anyone can Write” is baloney and that all companies should be using professional copywriters to help them tell the world what they have to say. It’s the only way they can hope to have their communications rise above the sea of poorly written nonsense through which we all have to wade every day.
So, what would happen if brands did use professional copywriters all the time? Well, one thing we’d be able to do is say goodbye to Tone of Voice guidelines. Why? Because they invariably include nothing that has any bearing on the craft of writing good copy. And they all say pretty much the same thing – all brands effectively wanting to speak in exactly the same way.
Tone of Voice documents can vary hugely in length. Some take up just one PowerPoint slide. Some run for umpteen pages. More often than not, a brand’s Tone of Voice will be covered in a remote section of a much larger Brand Guidelines document, usually after the authors have dealt with imagery (primary and secondary), the corporate colour palette, illustration, icons, video, digital, layout grids and 30 pages of how not to use the company logo.
Invariably, Tone of Voice guidelines (regardless of their length) leave me with one thought: “Obviously.” Obviously, communications should be clear. Obviously, they should be human. Obviously, they should be concise. Obviously, they should consider the audience for whom they’re written. Obviously, they should not patronise. And so on. As a professional writer, I don’t need such instructions. With my expertise and my common sense, I’m fairly sure I can do without them.
As can Corporal Howard.
The climax of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is set in a courtroom in which two marines are being tried for murder. At one point, Jack Ross, the Prosecuting Attorney (Kevin Bacon), asks Corporal Howard, a witness, to open up The Marine Guide and General Information Handbook for New Recruits and find the chapter that deals with Code Reds. If you haven’t seen the film or play, a Code Red is when a marine is “ordered” to physically discipline a colleague for screwing up. (I recommend the film, but watch out for the excruciating de rigueur “Tom Cruise Gets Drunk” scene.) As Howard is unable to find said chapter, Ross concludes that there is therefore no such thing as a Code Red. However, Defence Attorney Daniel Kaffee (Mr Cruise, natch) immediately turns the tables by asking Howard to find the chapter that includes directions to the mess hall. Which, of course, aren’t there either. “So, how did you find the mess hall?” “I guess I just followed the crowd.”
My point is that there are times when we simply don’t need guidelines.
What we do need is something to say. Because no matter how clear, concise and engaging my copy, unless I have something solid to work with, something to really get my teeth into, something more than a collection of vanilla statements about efficiency and performance and insights, my copy – which, remember, is destined to become the client’s copy on their website or Adshel or wherever – will simply ring hollow. Even if it is, though I say so myself, well written.
Saying nothing beautifully is infinitely preferable to saying nothing awkwardly, but wouldn’t it be so much better to have something decent to say?
So maybe we don’t need Tone of Voice Guidelines. Maybe we need Content of Voice ones.