Tone: The foundation for your message

July 30, 2013

I recently got back from a weeklong vacation in Northern Italy on Lago Maggiore. We rented a house in a small town somewhat out of the way of the normal tourist pathways. Not speaking a word of Italian (besides the requisite few needed to order gelato), I was thankful to have my native-Italian mother-in-law with us to help handle the details. More than any other European trip I’ve ever taken, I was able to sit back, relax, and observe. The experience really underscored for me the importance of tone and manner – so much is conveyed by how you say something, not just the content of your words.

Yes, I did delight in seeing some examples of the stereotyped “passionate Italian” conversations. Disgruntled women aggravated with their boyfriends; men recounting exciting stories (of soccer matches?) to their neighbors – all done with arms flying, exaggerated facial expressions, and complementary heavy sighs and tongue clicking. Our friends from Paris stayed with us for a few days, along with their young, bilingual daughter – a playmate for ours - and we quickly learned whining sounds the same in French or English. In the local market, a woman’s apologetic-sounding voice from behind me had me realizing I was blocking the line before I even turned around and saw her pointing hand gesture. In most instances, while I could not grasp the story line, I could feel and understand the emotion and anticipate what reaction the speaker was hoping for.

It all had me thinking about how tone is such an important part of communications, especially for brands. It is a standard part of our strategic intelligence process to ask questions, to shake out the type of personality a client brand can credibly own. Whether modern or traditional, conservative or bold, friendly or formal, we use this understanding to inform how we write and design on their behalf.

But, just as the promise of a brand needs to be aligned throughout an organization, the tone needs to as well. If you don’t deliver on your communications promise in your actual operations, clients and prospects can become confused about what you stand for or even be profoundly disappointed, and their desire to return for repeat business will dry up. It’s the same with content and tone – what you say and how you say it need to work together harmoniously and consistently, no matter what the medium. And, one step further, your verbal tone needs to complement and work with your visual tone. When there is a mismatch, discord rises to the surface alienating audiences.

One of the simple questions we ask to help determine the appropriate tone and personality is to quite literally have a client describe their company as if it were a person. One of my favorite responses we got recently: “I don’t know exactly what adjectives I would use if it were a person, but he would definitely be wearing cool glasses.” Just that one sentence gave us a colorful and rich mental image to work with: serious, studious, and stylish. Now that’s a tone we can all understand.

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