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  • Writer's pictureDylan Parry

How much is enough?

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

A tone-of-voice guide – if it's any good at all – will tell you what to do with your brand’s writing.


You might start your messages with an insight, to show that you understand your audience. Or perhaps you take bold points of view, to reveal your fearless attitude. Or maybe, like Mailchimp, you dabble in subtly smart, weird, dry, eccentric, inclusive, straight-faced, winking humour.



I think of some of these traits or principles that define a voice as ‘baseline’ tone. Things like being 'friendly’. They’re the brand’s normal, or neutral – the things it does most of the time. While that stuff is really important, it's often the little flourishes sprinkled on top that create real distinctiveness.


What's really rather hard to do with guidelines, though, is to say exactly how much of that stuff to sprinkle on.


Think of it in terms of people for a moment.


Now, I don’t know whether or not you have a mate called Davina but, for argument’s sake, let’s assume you do. Davina, like most of us, probably has certain linguistic affectations. Certain ways of couching the things she says. When she wheels them out, you think “ooooh, that is SUCH a Davina thing to say.”


Does that mean Davina takes each and every opportunity to crank up her flava'? Probably not, or she might become so unbearable that you'd have to scratch her from your Christmas card list. And that would be a sad day.



No, whether consciously or not, Davina most likely exercises restraint, moderation and judgement in deciding when and where she lets fly.


Back in the land of brands, we can systemise this moderation to an extent. If we’re talking about throwing in off-hand humour or whimsical asides, for instance, we can safely say that a response to a customer complaint is probably not the most wonderfully awesome place to do this.


But even when we know we’re on safe ground, it's hard to systemise how much of these things to do. The context might be appropriate for a gag – or whatever your verbal 'device' is – but how do you know when you’re doing it too much (or not enough)?


Take this email I got from energy supplier Bulb the other day. It’s a great example of how to simplify things while being both warm and direct at the same time. Aside from that, what stands out is the lighthearted musing on cherry bakewells.



Whether you personally like or dislike this sort of snack-based whimsy is not really the point. Bulb has decided that it's something they’re going to do – the question is how much. I think we can safely agree that if they did much more of it in this email, most customers would find it distracting and annoying. And probably even if they did it just once in every single communication.


When it comes to the big picture, guidelines can only really give a sense of the overall effect we want to create – plus examples of course – with a note of caution as to what too much might feel like. Beyond this, it’s down to the judgement of the people working for the brand.


The task of exercising this judgement is made all the more difficult when – as is typical – multiple people are creating or approving written output. A fanciful rumination on why washing machines send so many socks to sock heaven might be fine for your ad, until it turns out that the social media folk have been doing quite a lot of that sort of thing lately. In the heat of battle, with deadlines looming, can you be sure you'd know?


This is just one reason why it helps to give a member of your team explicit responsibility for keeping tabs on the brand’s tone. That way, you can be sure someone is looking up from their own plate long enough to take stock of the big picture, and reporting back to the wider team.


There are other reasons it’s good to have someone act as ’Steward of the Tone’ – sounds very Game of Thrones, doesn't it? – but that’s for another blog post.


For now folks, just remember: most things in moderation.



Dylan Parry is a freelance copywriter based in London. He hates to see you overdo it.

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