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LET’S TALK TONE.

The state of the nation’s satisfaction with how we speak or communicate with one another is…not great. Opinion poll after opinion poll suggests we’re just not getting one another, we’re inadvertently upsetting each other, we’re making comments in bad taste, we’re too syrupy sweet or saccharine, and we’re choosing the wrong times to joke and to be serious.

You can see the evidence screaming out of message boards and overwhelmingly inside your social feeds: folks aren’t happy with how they’re being spoken to. Looked at Twitter lately? Toxic. It can seem like folks are simply scowling along, waiting for their next psychic wound to open up so they can let you know what an insensitive jerk you’ve been. Their sensibilities are offended. They don’t understand you. You’re too gruff or you’re too ecstatic. You’re too weird or incomprehensible. You just don’t get it, or you’re setting them up to look the fool. From sending a company email to a colleague to creating a giant billboard for the masses to see, your tone is off. Invariably, someone’s going to complain.

Can you avoid it? And how does all this impact your brand voice, your advertising messages, your company’s social media footprint, and important corporate communication? In a word, loudly. So what to do, what to do?

Here is a series of practical tips you may find useful, whether you’re building a full ad campaign, drafting content for your social feeds, or just communicating with a colleague.

  1. Do your homework.

Have you done your research into the recipients of your message? Think about what you know about them before you type the first letter. Do some digging. Google. Look at studies or reports. If you’re building a campaign, consider an electronic survey meant to measure attitudes. Poll your social media followers. Talk to your friends. Think about the person or people you’re talking to demographically, and think about people you know who fit that mold. What cultural references might you have in common? What jokes can you share, or what might be over their heads? Invariably, if you work to find it, you can cobble a story of human interest that nearly everyone can look at and identify with.

  1. When creating the message, what sort of mood are YOU in?

When you sit down to create a piece of communication, pause and self-survey. Check in. Where are you? Are you thinking about a fight you had with your spouse? Are you stressed over bills? Hung over? Are you happy with the world and all you see in it? Are you in a peaceful, Zen-like state through which ideas simply flow? All of these states of mind will color, in some cases quite dramatically, what you compose. If you’re not in the right frame of mind to write, don’t. Full stop. Then, recalibrate. Do some breathing exercises. A mini-meditation at your desk. If you’re worried, jot down your worries into a quick worry journal to help your mind “put them” someplace. Then, begin again. There. That’s better, isn’t it?

  1. Think empathetically.

If you’re drafting web copy for a senior citizens’ home, it helps to pause and think about the seniors you know in your life. What are they like? What issues do they share? What was popular or interesting during their lifetimes? What experiences have they had; what things have they seen? When you feel like you can walk a mile in their shoes, then and only then should you begin writing—with care, with feeling, with empathy. Even if you’re trying to make them laugh.

  1. Is there a guide for tone?

Established clients have a precedent for their tone of voice. It exists in all previous corporate communications. Devour it all. Become a subject matter expert in how they communicate. These same clients may even be guided by what’s known as a house style manual. These manuals often contain examples and descriptions of appropriate tone. Follow this in-house style and never stray. When messaging colleagues, remind yourself who you’re speaking with before writing to them. Look at some old email volleys. Here, history is an important guide. Think of conversations you’ve had, jokes you’ve shared, and stories you’ve reminisced over. Write from that crucible, and you can’t get too far afield.

  1. Be wary (very) of the opinion gauntlet.

Think of all the great books in the world. All the wonderful plays. The poetry. Shakespeare’s folios and sonnets. Think of all the world’s paintings and statues. In all of them, can you think of a single one that’s truly great that was created by a committee? We warn our clients all the time about the danger of opening up the comment box too widely. We often fall into the same trap when evaluating our own work, and we must remind ourselves daily how to avoid it. Not only are these types of committees woefully inefficient, frustrating, and a time waster, but you’ll soon find yourself lost in a sea of competing, conflicting opinion. If we know a committee will be in charge of decision-making vs. a single, empowered marketing director, we have to add additional time to our estimates and invoices. So you’ll need to ratchet up your courage and develop your own ear for what works. Find a trusted confidant, a gifted colleague, or an editor you enjoy and share only with that person. Group thinking and committee structures work well for the United Nations, a slow-moving, deliberative body by design. But they’re hell on your ad messages, social content, and general productivity.

Hopefully, these tips will help set you and your tone up for success. If we’ve offended any committees or individuals in the writing of this, we sincerely apologize!

By Jack Becker

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