Brand people are woeful at defining what we're (actually) talking about

* Alistair Herbert is the founder of Linguabrand, a verbal identity management company that helps brands use words. He tweets here

“Brands need to put the same effort into creating a unique ‘tone of voice’ for the language used in call centres and on bills as they do for advertising campaigns or risk creating a disconnect that could hit sales.”

There’s a lot of trumpeting tone of voice at the moment, like the above quote from Marketing Week. But without some cold facts this sounds like hot air.

After all, what exactly is tone of voice? You would have thought that people working on words would be good at defining their terms. But they aren’t. They’re in brand world and brand people are woeful at defining what we’re talking about.

At Linguabrand we call the things brands talk about their brand agenda. And tone of voice is simply how they talk about these things. So it’s not so much what you’re saying but how you’re saying it.

It’s pretty easy for readers and listeners to work out what is being talked about. That’s because we understand that words are vehicles for thoughts. We receive this sort of conceptual information at the front of our brain, in the pre-frontal cortex.

That’s the bit that makes us so much brighter than our co-inhabitants of planet earth. It developed long after we crawled out of the primeval slime; much later than other parts of the brain.

But words are also vehicles for emotions. Many of these are revealed by the way we write and speak. And they reveal things about us, or our businesses, we’re largely unaware of. Yet we have our gut feel and emotional radar that guide our attitudes towards people and brands.

Tone of voice influences these feelings. As James Geary says in his book I is An Other: “A specific picture or phrase activates a field of unconscious correlations, and the influence of these associations prompts us into behaviour that is largely outside our control or awareness”.

That pre-frontal cortex of yours can only deal with so much information. It acts as a filter to your consciousness, cutting out things it considers unnecessary. In moments of danger your older emotional centre, the amygdala, which rests at the bottom of your brain, kicks in as an override.

That’s when you jump at an unexpected noise or start sweating when nervous. But most of the time you aren’t aware of all your emotional responses. Quite extraordinarily, it’s also been proven that we think and hold memory at cellular level within our bodies.

So our conscious understanding is of limited use in knowing how we feel or why we do things. That’s why asking your customers why they buy things is a poor indicator of actual actions. The truth is we simply don’t understand ourselves.

At Linguabrand we think of words as maps to emotions. We use brand language analytics to connect company and audience psychologies. That means putting what brands talk about and how they talk about it into an emotional and competitive context.

And that’s why we get cross when we read bland language about tone of voice. Because for the majority of business writers it’s just a matter of opinion. One person’s ‘engaging’ tone is another’s ‘conversational’ or ‘friendly’. They are ill-defined and unidentifiable. And consequently of little practical use to business.

But the emotional importance of tone of voice in a world where words are proliferating is obvious. That’s why we’ve created a model of tone of voice based on psychological classifications of words. As it’s software-based it can read thousands of words fast. And, unlike human readers, it delivers consistent results every time.

It works by creating a tone of voice signature across five personality areas: character, outlook, socialisation, thinking and delivery. And there are data points in each area. So character has ‘distance’, ‘ego’, ‘affinity’ and ‘empathy’, for example.

We used it to create an ‘all-business tone of voice benchmark’ of 210 brands from 27 different sectors. That’s 1.51 million words. You start to create a ‘unique’ tone of voice by first measuring the sector against this all-business benchmark. Then we measure each brand’s tone of voice against its competitors.

Think of brand language like a marble block in a sculptor’s studio. The Linguabrand tone of voice model is the student who comes and hews out the shape, ready for the master to come in and deliver the subtleties that bring the work alive.

Writing is an art. But good art has always had science behind it. Words are proliferating under the hothouse glass of the digital space. In this heat we need less hot air and more cool thinking.

Monty (713 Posts)

Monty Munford has more than 15 years' experience in mobile, digital media, web and journalism. He is the founder of Mob76, a company that helps tech companies raise money and exit. He speaks regularly at global media events with a focus on Africa, writes a weekly column for The Telegraph, is a regular contributor to The Economist, Wired, Mashable and speaks regularly on the BBC World Service.