A great example of why corporate tone of voice guidelines are usually pointless

Most large organisations have at least one set of guidelines for writers.

Often, one of the documents you’ll be told to read before you start writing will be all about capturing the firm’s “brand personality” through tone of voice. Invariably, this document is pointless.

Why? Because:

1. It rarely tells professional writers anything they don’t already know about good writing.

2. It’s largely ignored or misunderstood by everyone else because they have their own idea of what sounds appropriately “corporate”.

Let me give you an example. Another copywriter I know recently worked with a client who gave him a guide to communicating their brand. He sent me a copy of the document, which helpfully explained its purpose thus:

It’s important that the tonality of our communications convey the unique characteristics of [XYZ company]…

…To ensure that we always ‘sound’ like [XYZ company], we’ve shared a few writing strategies to help bring the personality attributes to life in copy.

The document then went on to list the various “personality attributes” of the brand and how the firm’s written documents should reflect them.

First up, the writing style was to be “honest”, “respectful” and “credible”. One wonders what dishonest, disrespectful and non-credible copy might look like (and what sort of professional writer would produce such work anyway).

Next, he was informed that the writing style should involve “active voice”, “shorter sentences” and “use of imperatives and more direct language in calls to action”.

This is a little more helpful, I suppose. However, if you’re a half-decent pro, chances are you already write in an active, imperative style with short sentences anyway.

If you’re not a pro, are these guidelines much help? I wouldn’t mind betting most people who need to be told to write in the “active voice” are likely to ask “what’s ‘active voice’?”

In fact, only this morning, a client told me a sentence I’d written in the active voice was “too passive”.

Illustrations in the style guide of the difference between the active and passive voices would have helped.

Ditto “use of imperatives and more direct language in calls to action”. How many non-writers could identify the imperative form of the verb? What does “direct language” look like? Again, an example would have helped.

And as for “short sentences”, does the average non-writer really know how short is “short”? (Hint: not in my experience).

Wouldn’t it have been better to give a word limit? No sentence longer than 24 words, say? Or at least to tell the user of the style guide that if they can’t read a sentence out in one breath it’s too long?

Next, our writer was informed the writing style should demonstrate “impeccable understanding of subject matter”. (Is this really a question of style or a question of having the courage and common sense to make sure you’re properly briefed on the topic?).

The style was also to be “deliberate and specific in the language we use. Defining.”

I like the sound of writing that’s “deliberate and specific” (as opposed to unwitting and vague). However, I’m not sure what’s meant by a “defining” writing style. An example might have helped.

Finally, the writing style was to to be “inclusive” by using “descriptive language” (use lots of adjectives?) while being “straightforward and unembellished” (don’t use lots of adjectives?).

Again, an example of this inclusively descriptive but unembellished style might have clarified things (if only in the mind of the writer of the style guide).

Anyway, my writer friend did his best to interpret these instructions, largely by following his own common-sense rules for good writing. Like most pro copywriters, these involved producing something punchy, short and as far as possible devoid of vague, formulaic corporate blurbage about delivering excellence through unrivalled solutions blah blah blah.

But, as if to prove that the people in the organisation didn’t really understand their own tone of voice guidelines (and, actually, who can really blame them), my writer friend was told he hadn’t quite captured what the company’s brand manager had in mind.

It wasn’t his fault, he was told. It was just that, as an outsider, he didn’t really understand the firm’s culture.

Could he, then, produce something more like this? “This” being a document headlined “Comprehensive solutions to grow your business”.

He forwarded me a copy, knowing I would enjoy its contents. The document began with the following, 47-word, full-stop-free example of the passive voice:

Our full suite of conventional and Islamic services and solutions across Transaction Banking, Financial Markets, Corporate Finance and Principal Finance are supported by an award-winning ecommerce platform and a Global Research team that deliver a unique combination of global and local perspectives of major and emerging markets.

(Incidentally, every financial client I’ve ever worked with boasts a “unique combination of global and local perspectives”).

The document went on to mention the firm’s “full suite of cutting-edge, customised solutions” and its “award-winning fully integrated electronic channels”. Other formulaic guff included this 30-word masterpiece of corpspeak:

Leveraging our extensive network and unrivalled knowledge of emerging markets, we offer a comprehensive range of innovative and award winning risk management, financing and investment solutions to meet clients’ needs.

My writer friend concluded it would have been more helpful if the style guide had simply said:

We sound just like every other big corporation out there. Cobble together some meandering nonsense about leveraging solutions and unrivalled this, that and the other and you’ll have our tone of voice nailed.

What’s your experience of corporate tone of voice guidelines? Do you agree they’re worse than useless? Or have you ever seen or used a tone of voice document that worked well?

On a separate note, is the verb form in this sentence from the style guide wrong or subjunctive?

It’s important that the tonality of our communications convey the unique characteristics of [XYZ company]…

We can’t decide!

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

14 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Will says:

    It’s wrong. Most people wouldn’t recognise a subjunctive sentence unless it were to punch them in the face.

    Great stuff, Clare. Most companies’ tones can be boiled down to ‘corporate, but not really, really corporate. And if you can make us sound original without sounding stupid, we’ll love you forever.’

  2. Andy Maslen says:

    Great post Clare, and a situation most of us either have or will encounter at some point in our careers. I find most so-called tone-of-voice guides are actually attempting to define style – as in much of your quoted example.

    Tone is far harder to define, let alone codify, and is better served by words like ‘lively, ‘serious’ or ‘friendly’ than half-assed attempts to prescribe particular grammatical forms.

    On which subject, I believe the verb form in your final quote is the mandative subjunctive (present tense of ‘convey’ in the subordinate clause following the phrase expressing command, suggestion or possibility ‘It’s important that…’).

    It would carry more power were it to be expressed, ‘The tone of our communications must convey…”. Why ‘tonality'”

  3. Tone (or tonality) conveys, surely? Core tonalities would convey, maybe, or perhaps they’d just drive leveragability?

    Yes, all corporate jobs are the same. Please follow these guidelines then we’ll either turn it back into corporate guff like every other firm, or sack you because you’re clearly incompetent at writing the sort of corporate guff we think will make us look important (even though no-one will read or understand it).

    It’s a great life, isn’t it?

  4. John says:

    I think the problems you’ve highlighted here aren’t the fault of the document. You’ve actually argued points to make the document better rather than arguing that it’s pointless.

    What’s happened in the example you’ve encountered is the document isn’t specific enough and the people who are in charge of it don’t understand it.

    The problem is that some companies don’t see or understand the value in having a dedicated copywriter. They think that they can hire staff to do other jobs, but as long as they put “must have good command of English” in the CV then everyone can do a bit of writing on the side. In my experience the people who are picking candidates can’t even write properly themselves. It’s a surprisingly niche discipline in a lot of respects.

    I went to a content strategy session as part of UX London 2013, it was with a woman called Margot Bloomstein. She has an exercise that companies have to go through before she starts looking at their content strategy. She has a set of 80 cards, each with an adjective on them. The company has to divide them into three groups:

    – Who we are
    – Who we are not
    – Who we want to be

    We did the exercise in groups, split into dummy companies and a dummy agency. It’s the agency’s job to question how the company sees itself. i.e. if I say that I am a respectful company, what does that imply? If we didn’t list it in our brand identity would it mean that we were therefore disrespectful? There needs to be a skillset internally that can identify these ambiguities, or at least recognise that they need to pay someone else to do it. The company your friend has encountered doesn’t have this. Perhaps he could have taken the leap and demonstrated quite boldly where they were going wrong – could have led to some work defining their ToV document and teaching them how to do be self-sufficient.

    I’m a copywriter for a corporate company that has staff all over the world and I rely on our tone of voice document because, as you point out, people have their own idea of what things should sound like. If your friend had been working with me and our brand manager then he wouldn’t have encountered such incompetence! 🙂

    I agree with the points you make about active voice / short punchy sentences / friendly / honest etc. These are the basic tools of any good copywriter and they appear in every ToV document I’ve read. It’s difficult to find a genuinely original tone, but as long as the copy is solid and the brand personality is being adhered to (however similar it is to others), it should still work well. Let’s not forget that the brand personality should also be coming across in visual design, so it’s all of these elements together that make you stand out.

    Also, totally agree with the “what’s the active voice?” point. Essentially these guidelines need to be training manuals as well as guidelines.

    On the subject of this sentence: “It’s important that the tonality of our communications convey the unique characteristics of [XYZ company]…” I always find it hilarious how people use the opposite style of language to the document they’re referring to.

  5. Richard Vain says:

    It’s the subjunctive, one of many such uses following expressions like ‘it’s important/essential/crucial etc that ….be…………’. The subjunctive expresses it more succinctly than the use of “should be” in such phrases.

  6. The verb form is wrong, being neither subjunctive nor conditional (“tonality…conveys“). Furthermore, the term “tonality” should be avoided unless you write music, or about music.

  7. Great blog (and something I’ve seen many times over the last ten years!).

    It’s just not enough to write some random guidelines is it?

    I always wonder who writes these kind of guidelines. Are they thinking about the brand? Are they thinking about the writer (or non-writer) in the other end. And have they considered what happens when these guidelines leave the printer and go into the organisation – shows the need for ongoing training and different resources to make tone of voice changes stick.

  8. Brad Shorr says:

    The best way I know to find the right “tone” is to listen to the client’s sales people. They know how to pitch their products and services in language their customers understand. It’s faster and more accurate than 100 pages of corporate style verbiage.

  9. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Clare, what are most corporate guidebooks? Dust-catchers.

    A corporate guidebook isn’t hard to spot. It’s the pristine binder in the hard-to-get-to part of the top shelf of the office desk.

  10. Phil Welch says:

    Great post. I’ve worked with countless organisations whose guidelines follow the pattern you describe to the letter. And many more who spend hundreds of pages on visual brand and only give the most cursory nod to copy and tone of voice.

    But the ones I’ve worked with who seem to have got it right are those that (surprise, surprise) have the most distinctive tone of voice. I worked with one of the Virgin group companies for a number of years and their guidelines were extremely helpful – they actually guided me in how to write their copy. What’s more, they gave useful examples and were mercifully short.

    As for that sentence – wrong, I’d say.

  11. Sarah Turner says:

    Some of the ToV documents I’ve been given have obviously been written for non professional writers i.e. marketing department staff, the PR team and anyone else who’s going to write tweets, blogs posts or product descriptions. The ones that work the best I think are the ones that include examples i.e. ‘we don’t say this’, ‘we do say this.’ My favourite ToV doc to date has been Sheilas’ Wheels where it specifies the copy should include Aussie slang. Bonzer.

  12. Michael F. says:

    Here is a guide for tone and voice that actually works (at least I think so): http://voiceandtone.com/

    They use examples of how writers should reply under a variety of circumstances. I think examples are the key here, rather than a lengthy description on what tone or voice should be.

  13. Alex T says:

    Really interesting article but I think John’s response is spot on. It’s not the fault of the document, it’s the approach and attitude of the company that’s the problem.

  14. Bob Waldner says:

    You’ve nailed it! Every time I have to write corporate copy guidelines I have these thoughts, but I thought it was just me. It’s so good to hear somebody else has wrestled with these issues.

    I’m working on a set of guidelines right now, and I was told that I should include the “grade level” writers should aim for—that is, 8th-grade level sentences, or 12th-grade, or whatever. But what does it even mean? What writer begins his or her work thinking, “I’m going to do my 6th-grade level prose”?

    Your post has given me the courage to ignore the request!

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