Why are tone of voice guidelines so woefully lacking?

If you look at a typical brand or organisation’s brand guidelines, you’re sure to see a few common tick boxes. Logo rules? Check. Gradients? Yep. Fonts? Absolutely. But tone of voice? More often than not it’s a page, maybe two – if it features at all – in a 40+ page PDF, comprising of a few floaty statements and top level tips. “Engaging”, “jargon-free”, “friendly”. It’s like asking for design that “looks good”.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with these tips and statements as such. Top level “vibes” are useful to get a sense of things as a copywriter. But they’re too vague. Guidelines are meant to be a rulebook. They need to be practical. And without practical application pointers alongside the bigger picture stuff, then how can writers be expected to create something worth reading?

In conversations around tone of voice, MailChimp rightly comes up often as a brand who have put time and attention into articulating its Content Style Guide. But there are plenty of other organisations you might not expect who are smashing it too, such as the The University of Leeds or even The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA). What puts these three examples ahead of the pack in my opinion is that they’ve gone beyond the floaty statements and nailed down the mechanics of how you create the tone of voice. MailChimp goes into granular detail on writing for its different formats and platforms. Leeds University carefully couples every “what” with a “how”. ICSA plots out the road to good writing from A to B in clear and informative steps.

These three examples show that tone of voice can be well-articulated to great effect. It can be done. So why isn’t it being done more? Why are these examples so rare? Why are we still seeing these long, clunky guideline documents from brands big and small that don’t give tone of voice anywhere near enough time as design? Rob Mitchell, co-founder of We All Need Words, writes for Design Week that “the hard part of any tone of voice project is finding a lateral way to put all the brand stuff into words.” That it’s high time “visual identities budged up a bit to share some of that rebrand limelight with their wordy cousins.” And I couldn’t agree more. The attention that goes into the visual needs to go into the linguistic too.

If we don’t commonly see rules as important to copy, it’s surely at least part of the reason that there’s so much weak writing around. There’s golden work going out every day, but there’s also, as Velocity Partners’ Doug Kessler has eloquently established, a deluge of utter crap.

Would copywriting as an industry be better if we held it to account more? I sure as hell think so. And one place to start is by organisations taking the time to lay down some rules and articulate their voice and tone. It’s not an easy or thrillingly exciting task but the results could be epic.

I’m no rigid stickler for the rules. Rules should be played around with, toyed with, sometimes even broken. But I also think that the rules should be respected and at the very least known, even if they are then consciously ignored.

Could being anxious millennials make us better creatives?

Avocado

I’m a millennial.

(Sorry).

And along with the rest of the world – when I’m not monopolising avocado yields or just whingeing somewhere – I hate the term. More than that, though, I hate what comes along with it.

The always having to be ‘on’, always worrying about what’s next, always judging yourself against others because you’ve been conditioned that way. Yada yada. A recent BBC article on ‘millennial burnout’ explains that ‘it’s all about being hyper-healthy, hyper-clued-up, hyper-fashionable – and it’s exhausting.’

It sure as hell is exhausting and more than that it’s boring.

But an intriguing thought struck me recently:

Could all this ‘millennial anxiety’ be positively fuelling our creative careers?

Let’s see.

The always ‘on’ mentality?

It means thinking about and documenting words and ideas whenever inspiration strikes. Working on the go and never being limited by the surrounding set-up. Texting on the night bus? How about tactics on the night bus?

The dependence on technology?

It means writing for any platform or format. Twitter? Yep. Web? Yep. App? Yep. When the machines enslave us all, maybe I’ll curry favour through delightful binary.

The narcissism?

We’re all obsessed with ourselves, so naturally that extends to our jobs. Being a millennial means I know my work is the only significant work going in the land. Everything I do is of crucial import and no one else could possibly get me.

The self-doubt or ‘imposter syndrome’?

It helps us to stay modest and powers us to work harder in the creative industries. I’m constantly expecting my boss to stand up and bellow ‘get out, fiend’ in his best Ian McKellen voice.

The worry?

It adds pressure that forces us to hit deadlines and fuels us to produce the best work we possibly can. It also leads to crippling mental and physical health issues but let’s just sweep that under the rug.

The comparison with others?

It keeps us competitive, researching what others are doing and always topping up the inspiration. It also means we’re constantly coveting other people’s wondrously emerald grass.


So what do we reckon then? Could being an anxious millennial make us better creatives?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the real question is: how do you be a millennial and a creative…while being content?

[Adapted from an original guest post for Bank of Creativity]

Creative Play and Rejecting the Don Draper School of Idea Generation

Via AMC

What does it mean to be “creative”? To be an “ideas person”? Or to be “artistic”? They’re just words aren’t they. Devoid of any real meaning.

As a Contenty-copywriter type, I often (to my delight) get pulled into creative meetings or idea generation sessions, as it is assumed I’ll be a valuable contributor. And whilst I’d love to think that’s all on me, in reality I think it’s because my job role allows me to be “creative”. It is expected.

Creativity belongs to us all

Creativity is not a talent, it is an active craft. It’s all about being able to shift perspective and solve problems. And it isn’t and shouldn’t be pigeonholed to one industry or role. Dave gets it:
“Creativity isn’t a particular discipline. It’s the quality of originality and unexpectedness that you bring to whatever you do.” – Dave Trott in Creative Mischief

The importance of playfulness

It’s hard to actually define creativity, but in my opinion it centres around playfulness. A quick check on Google offers “frivolity”, “silliness” and even “monkey business” as possible synonyms. But I mean playful in terms of toying with or manipulating something, pulling it apart and patching it back together.

 

Being playful in the workplace isn’t frivolous or silly, but a way of solving problems cleverly or building something that is original, whatever the project.
via Primal Screen
I did a module a few years back at university on Holocaust Literature which was as brutal as it sounds but fascinating. I did well in the final exam with the positive feedback that I had explored the books in question “playfully”.

 

I learnt that playfulness doesn’t have to be silly, but that it’s a method of finding new angles and ideas, whatever the subject matter.

The battle for the Great Idea

Playfulness may be a good method of “achieving” creativity, but it doesn’t guarantee results. When Mad Men‘s Creative Director, Don Draper, isn’t drinking or engaging in light misogyny, he broods away in his office until the idea miraculously comes to him.
“There is no algorithm that can tell us where it will come from and when it will hit”. – Tim Brown in Change by Design
Draper solves the day by having the ever-coveted lightbulb moment. But this is such bullshit. A fully-formed idea by one person is very rare. Also the notion that there is one great idea is ridiculous.

 

In reality, idea generation is a lengthy process, involving a mix of different people and many, many, many iterations.
“To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas”. Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry
Instead of ruthlessly pursuing the Great Idea, like a mighty but pointless hunt for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, we should play our way to the Right Idea.

 

Who’s with me?