On… tone of voice

Someone just emailed asking what I meant when, over on Cup Of Jo, I said I needed to find ‘my voice’ in my 20s.

Okay. I didn’t mean finding the ability to speak and have an opinion and be me. It’s got nothing to do with confidence or realizing that what I said matters, any of that shit. (Very little of what I say matters. Fact.) When I say ‘voice’, I mean something far more literal. Voice is how you say what you say. It’s your personality – or the personality that you want to project – coming across in the words that you write.

I used to be an advertising copywriter. Writing something ‘from’ British Airways – a letter, an ad, a brochure – ‘sounds’ a particular way; that’s the brand personality. For British Airways: plain-spoken, intelligent, understated. Like an old friend who went on to become headmaster at a very good school. I also wrote things ‘from’ Virgin Atlantic. Virgin is – across all Virgin brands – flirty, tongue-in-cheek, something they call ‘Virginess’, the ‘cheeky chappie’ Branson personality. Virgin only sounds like Virgin, British Airways only sounds like British Airways. That’s called their tone of voice. It’s, arguably, the most important part of advertising, and it’s, unarguably, the part lots of brands get wrong, in their attempt to appeal to everyone.

So, from a writing-books-and-screenplays point of view, I just had to work out how to only sound like me, consistently. My favorite writers all have very distinctive tones of voice – from Helen Fielding to Hemingway, Nora Ephron to Dave Eggers. I didn’t aspire to sound like them – you can’t, really, it’s impossible, and anyway, I wanted to sound like me. But on the few occasions when I tried, early in my 20s, to sit down and write something just ‘from’ me, it always sounded false. So I felt blocked. Totally and utterly blocked. I didn’t spend much time worrying about it, mind you – I just went out and had fun with my friends instead.

But then.

After I had completed, I estimate, about 10,000 hours of copywriting (based on eight years of 250 days a year doing five hours of real writing a day, which is all anyone in advertising really does, if they say otherwise they are either lying or incompetent), something happened… Apparently, it’s called the ’10,000 Hour Rule’. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that ‘the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours’. So, obviously, ‘world class expertise’ is, frankly, fucking pretentious silliness when it comes to copywriting, which is simply selling people shit they don’t need, but yes, something happened at that point. I just got it. I was able to write exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it, with no gap between my brain and the page. I could do it for any company, any brand, and suddenly, I could do it for myself. So for me, that is what writing is. Everything else is just spelling.

Once I could write, all I had to do was figure out a story worth telling. Over and over and over again…


PS If you want to read more about tone of voice for business, read this and this and this and most of all, this.

Share Button

One thought on “On… tone of voice

Leave a Reply to William Kendall Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current month ye@r day *