A #ProCopyChat on Twitter

Brand language, Brand storytelling, Customers
Someone rather more smartly dressed than I am pontificating

Someone smartly dressed gets interviewed

The ProCopywriters’ Network interviewed me on Twitter, asking about brand personality, tone of voice and content strategy. Here’s what we talked about during our #ProCopyChat:

Let’s start with you telling us a bit more about yourself. What’s your writing background?

Well, I’m a Brand Language Consultant. I help all sorts of different organisations change how they write so they reach their customers more directly and powerfully. It’s a bit like being a brand design agency, except with words instead of visuals.

I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years. Before that I was experiential at Imagination and brand focussed at Corporate Edge. And I started off at Unilever, marketing frozen food and ice cream for Birds Eye Wall’s.

I’m also an SF novelist who learned about storytelling by working in feature film development. Stories are how we make sense of the world – they’re a big influence on how I see brands. And the SF helps me get clients ready for their own futures.

There’s a bio here – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/meet-al-robertson/

When we think of tone of voice, we initially think about the personality of the brand/client/business. How is this created, and how does it then have an impact on the audience?

Who you are is defined by what you do. So that’s how I look at brand personality. Once I’ve read through all their writing – I ask people ‘what’s the best things your brand actually does?’, then I dig into what that means for their customers.

A brand exists to help its customer solve their problems. So we usually end up discussing things like: ‘What sort of friend is this brand? What vital things does it help you get done? How does it help you do them?’ Then I turn that into a story.

You can understand most stories as ‘Hero wants to do something / Hero can’t do something / Hero does something’. You can use that structure to tell a story where the customer’s the hero on a mission and the brand’s their vital support.

Everybody loves being the hero! So from the word go you’re winning the customer over. And you’re telling them a story about how the brand helps them achieve a vital goal in a unique way. So you’re showing them why they should buy into it.

And it’s also a great way of digging into anything the brand doesn’t quite get right. After all, nobody’s perfect. Getting people talking about how their brand might be a *challenging* friend can be very helpful too.

Here’s a blogpost I wrote a while back that touches on that process – and roleplaying games, because you can learn a lot about storytelling from them – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/07/12/dungeons-dragons-and-brand-guidelines/

Why is tone of voice an important concept in copywriting?

Writing is where a brand comes to life in real time. A good tone of voice shapes that writing, making sure the brand cuts through the noise to reach people in a direct, instantly recognisable way, with words that have genuine, alluring meaning to them.

A good tone of voice also makes customers feel the conversation’s centred on them by helping brands use their own language to reach them. That’s very powerful too – ‘Me me me’ is a terrible sales pitch, ‘You you you’ is much more effective.

And it’s a live response because writing’s live. Logos, look and feels – they don’t change. But if someone’s grumbling on social media, the brand has to write back live…

If they’re launching a new product, they’ve got to find new words to describe it… everywhere from on the pack to in the instructions to in the press release to on the website…

And even if someone at the brand’s writing a customer email – well, it’s great if that’s on tone as well, because it shows that the people at the brand stand for the same values as the brand itself.

Oh, and it’s where emotion comes in too – very often, particularly in B2B writing, people are all Sherlock Holmes – dry and rational. Tone of voice brings in the Dr Watson – powerful emotive storytelling!

Though actually, you really need to be both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – emotional and rational – at the same time – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/09/13/why-dr-watsons-right-about-good-writing/

Can you give us some good (and bad!) examples of tone of voice?

The classic is Innocent Drinks – they pioneered that cheery, chatty modern conversational brand tone, they’re completely unforced and entirely natural. And their tone is (as I understand it) a very precise reflection of what they’re really like. Perfect!

A tone of voice should never be lipstick on a pig – it should be a direct and honest reflection of what’s best about a brand. Not that I’ve got anything against pigs – rather, tone should match personality, not try and cover it up.

In my first ever job I edited (and sometimes wrote) the jokes on Wall’s ice cream sticks. They set the tone for the brand perfectly – the fun of ice cream brought to life in a very inventive way.

I have a big soft spot for Lego instruction booklets too. They’re so perfectly put together – no words, but sometimes the best language is no language. They’re a brilliant example of show don’t tell, a core storytelling idea.

Oh, and Dilmah tea – their pack writing isn’t always too polished, but they’re so transparently and genuinely enthusiastic about their products it really doesn’t matter. They come across as very honest and authentic.

As for not so good ToVs… actually, my own personal bugbear is the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan… so confrontational, it’s never change anyone’s mind! It’s the opposite of what its audience needs to hear. None of us need more confrontation just now.

And I find station apologies incredibly irritating. Endlessly repeated robot ‘We’re sorry for your inconvenience’ = Grrrr! Southern Rail, I’m looking at you. Though to be fair making corporate apologies can be a real challenge.

Here’s a blog post about with some more examples. And Dick Van Dyke, because you NEVER want your tone to go all Dick Van Dyke – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/06/14/so-why-do-we-need-tone-of-voice-anyway/

Once you’ve established the tone of voice, what’s your next step in creating a brand identity?

Well, you know who you are and how you talk – the next problem is working out what you’re going to say! So – content strategy, aka the art of turning what you know into what your audience needs to hear to get them to a place that’s good for both of you.

Oh, and you might end up chatting to the designers too – although I’ve found that brand language definition tends to happen long after any design work’s done and dusted. That’s another bugbear – core words and visuals should happen together!

How do you develop a content strategy around the brand personality and tone of voice that you’ve established?

What really defines it is the brand’s customer – you think about where they start and where you want them to end up, and then you build a customer journey that gets them there.

Imagine you’re driving your customer – the brand personality’s the vehicle you choose, the ToV’s the music, chat and views that makes them love being in it, and the content strategy’s the GPS system that gets you to a destination you’re both happy with.

So you’ve got to understand where your customer’s starting from, where you (and they) want them to get to and how you’re going to get them there. Then you build your content to take them on that journey.

You might have several different kinds of customers. Then it all goes a bit ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ – you set up multiple paths through your content, and let customers choose (or just guide them through) whichever one’s best for them.

And there’s no shame in turning people away. If you can’t help them or they’re not the kind of people you want to do business with, you need to make that clear as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

Wasting people’s time is the greatest content sin. A good content strategy stops you from ever doing that, because it gives every little bit of content a clearly defined reason for existing. It makes sure your audience never shrugs and asks ‘So what?’

Weber BBQs do content strategy fantastically well. They want people to cook awesome food on their BBQs, so they provide every kind of content to help them do that – from all the normal stuff to BBQing courses and some of the best cookbooks I’ve ever read.

Here’s a blogpost on how awesomely wonderful Weber BBQs’ content is – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/07/05/sizzle-your-way-to-better-brand-language/  and one on plotting customer journeys: https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/10/18/how-to-help-your-customers-change/

Do you go through this process so you can write effectively for on a client’s behalf, or is it more of a toolkit so the client can improve the communications they make themselves?

It depends what they want. Sometimes I’m involved in the whole process, even doing some of the writing and editing myself, sometimes I just give them all the guidance and structure I can, train them in how to use it all and leave them to it.

Both have their plus points. Of course it’s lovely going back to help out over months or years – but I also love the challenge of writing guidance and training people too. It really makes you dig into what you do, so you can help someone else do it for themselves.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to someone to help them write more effectively?

Always start with the people you’re talking to. Understand the obstacles they face. Pin down what sort of hero they are. And then tell them a story about how you can help them overcome those obstacles to achieve something awesome.

Finally (and most importantly) – what’s your favourite biscuit?

The US-style cookies my wife makes on special occasions, with stroopwafels coming in second. Both washed down with a strong cup of black filter coffee! As my entire writing career runs on a platform of coffee.

So why do we need tone of voice anyway?

Branding, Business writing, Tone of Voice, Writing

Well, you can answer that in three words:

Dick Van Dyke

If you’re not British, you probably know him as a tremendously versatile actor and light entertainer who’s still hoofing it up in his 90s. But if you are a Brit, when you hear his name you’ll probably mutter something like ‘Gorblimey Mary Poppins’ in a tremendously bad cockney accent, then wince.

And for us Brits, his disastrous attempt to sound cockney in ‘Mary Poppins’ gets in the way of everything else about him. It completely overwrites his all-singing, all-dancing, utterly charming performance in the film. And it’s overwritten much of the rest of his career too.

Poor tone of voice turned Dick Van Dyke from a comedian into a joke.

Wincing at slogans

The need for good tone of voice struck me again on a recent anti-Brexit march. I think Brexit is a big mistake. So I want to change the minds of people who are pro-Brexit. And so, every time I heard or read the slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, I winced.

Of course, the slogan’s core message – ‘we think Brexit’s a bad idea’ – is entirely sound. It’s a great starting point for a conversation, leading naturally into ‘…let’s talk about why that is’. But its tone is aggressive and patronising. So it repels the pro-Brexiteers it most needs to convince.

Poor tone of voice alienates the very people you need to reach out to.

Reaching the right people

Tone of voice isn’t just about the big public messages. It can have very subtle impacts too. For example, small changes in tone can make a big difference when you’re recruiting. Certain words stop people from even applying for a particular job – here’s a fascinating article on how that works.

Getting job ad tone right increases diversity, which, because (according to McKinsey) companies with more diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers, increases profitability. How you use language can have a real, measurable impact on your business’ bottom line.

Good tone of voice boosts your business by bringing the right people closer to you.

Evoking the best of you

And of course some brands have fantastic tone of voice. First Direct are my own favourite example. I bank with them, so over the years I’ve had a lot of communications from them. Almost without exception they’ve been easy to understand, practically useful and just the right kind of friendly.

Put more technically, their communications deliver both rational and emotional benefits. And because they so precisely embody the First Direct brand, even the shortest note from them both reminds me of and reinforces all the good experiences I’ve had with them over the years.

Good tone of voice evokes everything your customers love about your brand.

So why do we need tone of voice?

We all need tone of voice because it shapes how we choose words, and the words we choose shape our brands and define our businesses in the minds and hearts of everyone they touch.

How dark archetypes can help you fix your brand

Archetypes, Brand personality, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

Image by nrkbeta

People often use archetypes when they’re talking about brand personality or pinning down a tone of voice. They can be very helpful indeed – but, like everything, they have a dark side. Every heroic brand archetype is balanced by its villainous opposite.

Those dark archetypes are just as useful when you’re thinking about your brand. They can help you understand how it might be going wrong and help you tell a clear, simple, relatable story about fixing it.

So, let’s take a close look at a dark archetype. I’m going to focus on one that appears in pretty much every story ever told – the Shadow.

Enter… the Shadow!

The Shadow is the hero’s lead opponent – the absolute opposite of everything they stand for. And the conflict between them and the hero drives the story they both appear in.

Darth Vader – Luke Skywalker’s opposite in every way – is a classic Shadow. ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is all about the good doctor’s Shadow taking over. Disney does great Shadows – look at Cruella DeVille or Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother. The Terminator is another example – an inhuman machine trying to destroy humanity. They can be very obvious in comedy – look at ‘Bridesmaids’, whose hero Annie is almost broken by her own absolute opposite, Helen.

If a brand’s making its customers feel it’s doing the direct opposite of what they want or need, then it’s a Shadow brand. Big Silicon Valley entities like Google and Facebook are great examples of Shadow brands. They want people to love how they’re creating a great new era of openness and community. But they’re very often seen as profoundly controlling and deeply divisive.

‘We’ve gone a bit Darth Vader on this one’

If you think your brand’s acting like a Shadow – that is, standing against rather than for what your customers want or need – it can be quite depressing. But the thing about Shadows is that their stories are about reconciliation and forgiveness as much as opposition and fracture.

Luke’s faith in his father finally pays off. The Terminator ends up protecting John Connor and saving humanity. Helen and Annie celebrate their friend’s wedding together, then Helen helps Annie find true love. And so on, in so many stories.

That gives you a really strong story to tell as you help your brand step out of the shadows. It’s a story about what your customers genuinely value, why and how your brand needs to change to deliver it, and how productive and profitable that change will be.

Beyond the Shadow

And that’s only one archetype. Perhaps some current or potential customers see you as a slippery Trickster, an obstructive Gatekeeper, a confusing Shapeshifter, or something else entirely.

Once you’ve understood the problem, and once you’ve settled on the dark archetype that best represents it, you’ve got a great way of telling the story of how you can fix it and why that’ll bring existing customers back onside and help you attract new ones.

There’s no such thing as a mistake

Tone of Voice, Workshops

At the start of jazz great Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, he describes a mid-60s gig with Miles Davis at a Stockholm concert hall. The band’s playing hard, the audience are going wild, the atmosphere’s electric, Miles is about to unleash a devastating solo, when:

‘I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from – it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.’

A sticky workshop moment

That quote came back to me once, when I was getting yelled at during a two day tone of voice training session.

It was for a small group of corporate letter writers, the people who reply to complaints and deal with problem customers. The company’s new tone of voice was meant to revolutionise their writing. Instead, they experienced it as an imposition from above, ignoring some of the real pressures and issues they faced.

And they let me know this in no uncertain terms.

Inspiration from a great

I remembered Herbie Hancock. For a moment I too felt that I’d completely screwed things up. So what happened next? Well fortunately, like Herbie, I had Miles Davis to inspire me:

‘Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a completely new direction. The crowd went crazy.’

As a brilliant improviser, Miles knew how to respond to the moment in just the right way, whatever was happening. Herbie goes on to say:

‘As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it – he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing?’

Improvising a new path

So, I took the same approach. I didn’t judge, I integrated. And I realised that it was actually a fantastic moment. Everyone was being absolutely and completely honest with me (if at quite high volume). They were sharing some very important reasons why they weren’t able to write well. And the workshop’s real purpose was to improve their writing.

So we turned the workshop on a dime, diving into the structural and managerial issues the team faced. That let me feed some genuinely transformative points back to senior management. Then we went back to the tone of voice.

Together, Miles, Herbie and the group taught me a very important lesson – Don’t judge, integrate. As long as you can find productive new ways of moving forwards, there’s no such thing as a mistake.

Writing speech for brands

Branding, Fiction, Uncategorized

It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.