Most tone of voice guidelines I’ve ever seen have been practically useless.
That’s because the brand thinking behind them is careless about what identity means and how it can work, and facile in their ideas about how language affects us and can relate to identity.
These would be serious failures at the best of times, but are all the worse when trust in business has fallen through the floor.
There are hard reasons for that lack of trust, but the bad and frequently ludicrous language of business is only making things worse, alienating attention where the hope must be to engage.
Other animals can apparently communicate, but the sophistication of language is unique to humans. There’s a disagreement among linguists about the origins of language but it’s been clear since Wittgenstein that language is a social construct, and that it depends on a shared acceptance of rules. Those rules in turn depend on context, and the same form of words may mean different things in different contexts.
Understanding those diverse contexts, being able to imagine how they might shape other’s understanding of what you say, is critical to good communication. Language can be seen as a form of behaviour within any given context and it may be seen as good or bad behaviour.
In this language affirms its human, social nature. We have expectations, which will vary according to context, and when it comes to business might be quite low, which is why we can tolerate robotic and mechanical phrases, or even things like outright boasting that would seem intolerable in other situations.
We might tolerate them, but we’re unlikely to be impressed by them. Such behaviour will just reinforce any negative views we have (and the Edelmann trust barometer suggests those views are pervasively negative).
A more effective language for business then would be one which respects the norms of ordinary conversation, in which people within the organisation speak as they would naturally, as humans.
By “human” I don’t particularly mean humane or kind, though I think both are desirable attributes. I mean thoughtful, careful, concerned to listen properly, and concerned to behave properly (so we’re not boastful or talking stupidly about ourselves).
Ironically this seems to be a skill which far from coming naturally needs to be relearned. It’s a skill you’ll need to carry the stories you want or need to tell. And that’s where I come in.
Video film of TEDx talk
Here’s a Tedx talk I delivered in 2017 on the ways brand or identity thinking can turn our language into an alienating thing.