September 11th, 2012
Tips, Tools and Tutorials
The English language is a fickle one. First you learn the rules, then you learn the many exceptions to those rules, then you learn to toss it all aside and be creative. You learn that putting words together creates meaning, but the way you put them together creates voice.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Imagine your boss messages you, “Could you please come to my office when you have a minute?”
Now imagine your boss messages, “I need to see you in my office immediately.”
Both word arrangements mean the same thing: come to my office. But they are delivered so differently that in the former, you think Hm… new project? A raise? Did she see me come in 5 minutes late from lunch? And in the latter, you simply think Oh, crap!
Language is a powerful thing. And a fine-tuned voice gives that language even more power.
Because it’s there in your digital and printed copy whether you establish it or not. And if you don’t actively shape it how you want, you might get stuck sending out the wrong message. You’ve got to take control! Take back that power! This is how you represent yourself, after all.
Anyone who has been taught knows how to write. But not everyone is a wordsmith. And you need a wordsmith to craft your website copy.
Keep reading and maybe you’ll be that wordsmith.
Voice is the style, personality, and perspective of the copy. It is not the same as tone and mood, though they are sometimes used (incorrectly) interchangeably. Tone is expressed by the writer through their voice; mood is interpreted by the reader (herein lies some of that classic English-language fickleness). If your website copy is a person, voice is their personality, tone is how they communicate with those around them at any given time, and mood is how people perceive them.
Since voice expresses your organization’s personality, your web copy can be seen as a component of branding. That’s why it’s so important to craft it carefully.
People answer this question many different ways, such as:
These are all great, but the problem with these descriptors is that friendly, quirky, professional, and persuasive are vague. Friendly for a bank is different from friendly for a night club. Of course we all want to exude professionalism, but do you mean that you want to blend in with your competitors’ dry corporate copy? Quirky is wonderful, but it’s like trying to be funny. If you try too hard, you just look silly. And persuasive? That’s what we’re all after here.
Besides, first things first. When brainstorming ideas for your copy, ask these questions:
Each of these questions has room for several sub-questions. Be as detailed and honest as possible. Don’t rush. You’re not like everyone else and that’s something to be proud of.
These questions, and any others that pop up along the way, must be faced head-on and answered before you can really do your company justice. Essentially, once these questions are answered, the voice you’re after is right in front of you.
But how do you express it in writing? More on that in a sec.
It’s vital to explore the questions about your company before you even think about what kind of voice you desire for your copy, because the two must coincide. Your actions and words must be the same or your credibility vanishes right before your audience’s (those potential life-long customers) eyes, and they’ll never think of you the same. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but there’s a difference between messing up and being just fake.
This is something we’ve all experienced. A company said they were going to do something and they didn’t. And it really stinks that this is what we’ve come to expect as consumers. We’ve been wronged and we’re cynical, for the most part.
Think about all of the snack brands that exclaim how “natural” and “healthy” they are, but then you read the ingredients and realize the FDA isn’t so strict about labeling. Think of all the times the bank or the cable company or any other company that provides you a vital service promised attentive customer service but then you’re on hold and speaking to a machine for an hour. Think of all the American brands that hardly produce any products in the U.S.A. These are only a few examples, and these are the things that make us so skeptical.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can be one of the companies out there whose message and ethics match up; you can close the gap between what you are and what you want to be. The only way to do this is to be honest and not fall into the exaggerate-and-persuade trap so much marketing copy can’t free itself from.
Now that we know how not to establish voice (i.e. without self awareness and by stretching the truth), let’s talk about some ways to establish the perfect voice for your marketing copy.
Let’s say I started a bakery. I did my brainstorming as suggested above and came up with these answers:
Now I can come up with some good descriptors for the voice of my copy. Based on my answers above, this is what I thought of:
Now I need to decide what perspective I want to speak from:
Note that writing in the third person is distant, “corporate,” impersonal, and can come off cold and uninviting.
Now, wordsmith, the mechanics of the English language bring it all together.
Basically, word choice/vocabulary. You don’t need to “dumb down” your words, but you don’t need to pretend you’re studying literature at Oxford, either. Use words that will resonate with your target audience, but don’t abandon people who might not be “in the know.”
For example, my audience mostly knows about the over-processed, genetically modified crap that ends up in many products, but those words have a lot of sociopolitical impact, too. They are jargon, they are overused, and they make a lot of people put up the not-this-again shield. Besides, I’m not trying to bring down anyone else. I’d rather say that my goodies are made with local, wholesome ingredients that are as close to the Earth as they can get. I’d also include ingredient lists to prove it.
Basically, sentence structure. It’s not just about how long or short a sentence is, or how it’s punctuated. Is every sentence complete (it doesn’t have to be, you know)? Different syntactical styles communicate the same message differently. Consecutive terse, complete sentences can be jarring and robotic. Consistently wordy, drawn-out sentences are a chore.
For example, I could say: Our pumpkin spice muffins are perfect for fall. They are made with 100% natural pumpkin. We bake them just until golden brown. They go very well with a spiced chai.
Those sentences are all very similar in construction and length. It’s not giving that warm, non-traditional vibe I wanted.
Instead, I could try: Autumn’s sweet prince has arrived: the pumpkin spice muffin. This wholesome treat is made with locally harvested pumpkin, spiced to perfection, and baked golden like the leaves. Paired perfectly with a chai latte. One dozen? We get that a lot.
This description contains a short sentence, a long, descriptive sentence, and incomplete sentence, and a little bit of playfulness. It exudes a bit of that natural charisma I was imagining when I brainstormed my list.
Remember, this isn’t an essay. You can break the rules.
Organize your copy. Think about the role that hierarchy plays in establishing voice. Think of each webpage as an ad, and give it a headline. What’s the page about? Muffins. Is “Muffins” a good headline? No. You can play with language based on what voice you want to exude. I wanted to be a little clever, so what about a headline like, “You won’t abandon the bottoms.” to hint at the fact that most people’s favorite part of the muffin is the top. But of course, my muffins are good until the last crumb!
Listen to that little voice. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not. If you feel like you’re forcing something or stepping into an appearance that doesn’t fit, try again.
Above all, remember that your message and your actions must match up. The investment in honesty will return generous rewards.
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