Striking a balance – why tone of voice matters

By Simon Maule,

The importance of good writing in the communications industry is a given. It’s right at the top of any how-to guide for practitioners learning the ropes. Yet amid the focus on constructing powerful copy, tone of voice in written content has received less attention.

But tone of voice is as critical as mastering alliteration and analogy. Why? Because it could help you achieve your ultimate communications objectives. Equally, without consideration, it could become an obstacle.

We recently conducted research which found that brands are increasingly investing in the development of thought leadership content to spark collaboration and engagement with target audiences.

Is today’s thought leadership content written as effectively as it could be to fulfil this purpose?

A wealth of academic studies show a typical male tone generally uses more assertive language, is more definitive, and while arguably more authoritative, it can discourage debate and engagement.

A typically female tone is more affiliative. It tends to use more inclusive language aimed as fostering collaboration, hedging claims and acknowledging opposing concerns.

However, analysis of 100 reports from some of the UK’s leading firms found that a majority (58%) of thought leadership copy is written in a male tone. A minority (38%) is written in the female tone, with only a small proportion (5%) written in a neutral tone which blends the two.

In other words, a large proportion of thought leadership content could be written in a style that may unwittingly discourage the collaboration and engagement its authors crave.

But is this true?

We conducted our own experiment to find out. Think of it as a thought leadership blind taste-test, where we asked people to rank content with very different tones.

We surveyed 50 senior communications professionals online, presenting them with two pieces of thought leadership text on the same subject. One adopted a typically male tone, and one adopted a neutral tone, blending typically male and female traits. We asked them to rate the pieces of copy across a range of key measures. Critically, this was a blind experiment – we did not say which was which.

The findings indicate that using a male tone of voice could be hindering firms even more than we initially thought. Across the board, there is a preference of almost 2:1 for the copy written in the neutral tone.

The neutral copy is even rated as more authoritative on average than the male copy. This is fairly damning for what studies show is a commonly-viewed strength of male copy. Not only that, but male respondents we surveyed overwhelmingly prefer the neutral copy to the male copy.

These findings represent more of a snapshot of opinion than a detailed academic study. Nevertheless, they could have significant implications. The prevailing view has long been that short, snappy copy – typically male in tone – is best. Many would blanch at an argument written in a way which may seem woolly and equivocal. But in our blind taste test, this was the preferred style.

Ultimately, a male tone probably won’t mask a report’s glittering insights – nor will a neutral tone transform the prospects of turgid analysis.

But the overwhelming use of the male tone may be inhibiting copy from seeming welcoming to potential collaborators. A more neutral tone, which combines typically male and female characteristics, may well be more effective in helping your firm achieve its thought leadership goals.

For firms keen to strike the right balance in their content, we recommend trialling different writing styles, rather than making wholesale changes without testing responses. You may wish to conduct an experiment like ours and produce two pieces of copy using different tones and share with a small group of trusted readers for feedback.

This can help you develop a tone of voice that remains authentic to your organisation and fit for purpose.

Simon Maule is Managing Director at Linstock Communications.

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