You'd probably think that, as a writer, I would be all in favour of Tone of Voice. After all, I've spent my entire working life trying to persuade clients that the way they use words can help them gain a real advantage over their competitors. But a few years ago now, when everyone started getting excited about TOV, I began to notice my heart sinking and my hackles rising whenever I heard the phrase.
Put simply, my concern is that, in some circles, TOV has come to be seen as an end in itself; a separate free-floating component that can be added to any piece of communication in order to make it more attractive, a bit like slapping on a coat of white gloss to make a dodgy old kitchen table look as good as new.
What's wrong with that? I'd say that when TOV gets detached from content, it may actually become an obstacle to effective communication, distracting writers from what their true priority should always be: telling the story in a way which engages the reader, and puts his or her interests first.
Over the years, I've collected loads of examples. But I don't think I've ever come across a worse outbreak of Totally Gratuitous Bolted-On TOV Syndrome than this headline from a car ad that ran a while ago:
"There's something about getting more than you paid for which makes you feel happy. It may be the 'getting more than you paid for' bit."
I don't have any problem at all with long headlines, when they say something interesting. So that isn't the issue here. But what does bother me is that at least 19 of the 25 words in this line are utterly superfluous:
"Get more than you paid for."
That's all they're really saying, isn't it? And that's a rubbish headline, I'm sure you'll agree. But wrapping it up in several metres of supposedly humorous blather only makes it worse. They're trying to talk to us like we're best mates having a couple of beers together after work, but we know they're just car salesmen trying to offload a dodgy hatchback on us.
So that's my first beef with TOV: whose interests does it serve? Is it really about facilitating communication? Or is just a form of verbal posturing, intended to make the brand in question sound cool?
Despite my reservations, I've been asked to write numerous sets of TOV guidelines. And one thing I can't help noticing is that, when clients describe to me the distinctive TOV which they believe will help to set their business or brand apart from its competitors, they always say the same things. In the vast majority of cases, their considered view is that their TOV should be:
Direct, and to the point
Approachable, yet authoritative
Conversational, but not chatty
Modern, but not trendy
Nothing wrong with any of those attributes, of course. But there's nothing distinctive or ownable about them. They're just the common currency of pretty much all good business/brand communication.
Again, I can see that I should, in theory, be pleased that people are asking for words to be used well. But what really irks me is that a huge industry has sprung up to service this newly awakened enthusiasm for TOV, and legions of TOV consultants are churning out virtually identical sets of guidelines, for which they charge astounding sums of money.
Let me put this as fearlessly as I can: for me, TOV is largely a scam; a way of dressing up a simple off-the-shelf product and selling it at made-to-measure prices.
OK, that's me done. Thanks Taxi, for the opportunity to get that off my chest. And sorry if I've offended any Tone of Voice Consultants: I'm just jealous of your Bentley Convertibles and Caribbean holiday homes.