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Want a distinctive tone of voice? Introduce some constraints

Hiker in front of a mountain view and lake
Which way's north?

Think constraints hinder creativity? Think again. The tighter the brief, the more creative the outcome. Especially when it comes to tone of voice. There is a persistent assumption that in order to be creative, you need as much freedom as possible. In reality, the opposite is often true. The more constraining the brief, the easier it is for creativity to flourish.

The compass and the wilderness A tight brief removes those nagging doubts about whether you’re on the right track or not. If you’ll forgive me an indulgent analogy: a tight brief is a compass in the Siberian wilderness. It won’t take you to your destination, nor will it prescribe the exact route you should follow. (Those decisions are down to you.) However, it will inform your choices at every turn. Each decision can be justified by the direction the compass points.

The analogy continues A vague brief is the gesticulation of a passer-by in that same Siberian wilderness. You can still choose which direction to head. And you still might have some idea where you’re going. However, the further you press on, the more likely you are to get lost. At each turn, there’s nothing to support your decision to go left rather than right.

The analogy concludes With your compass (or tight brief) in hand, once you’re sure you’re heading in the right direction, you can stop worrying and start to enjoy the journey. New possibilities open up, and you’re free to explore them without fretting about veering wildly off course. You can go back and forth until you’re sure that the route you’ve taken is better than all the others.

Indistinct TOV? Maybe you need to be more specific A tone of voice guideline functions in much the same way as a brief. It gives a set of directions to achieve a certain goal. That is: to produce consistent communications which are distinctive to your brand.

However, most TOV guidelines just aren’t specific – or constrained – enough. They lack tangible linguistic rules – or constraints – and instead fall back on the dreaded ‘write to these adjectives’ style of instruction. The result is bland copy that sounds like everyone else’s – the exact opposite of what TOV guidelines are designed to achieve.

OK, constraints can be bad Of course, there’s a difference between a firm hug and a chokehold. When they’re too tight, constraints can be a hindrance too. No amount of creativity can overcome an environment where ideas are censored or suffocated.

Another tough constraint to overcome is that of not being able to tell the truth. Every copywriter has been in a briefing meeting and heard that immortal phrase, ‘obviously we can’t say this but…’ When you hear this, you know you’re in trouble. Consumers always know when you’re holding something back.

From brief to bullseye A good brief lays down a challenge. It tells you what you need to aim for and gives you the tools to make it happen. The better the brief, the clearer the target becomes. The clearer you can see the target, the more accurate you can aim the shots. And the more accurate the shots, the more likely you are to hit the target dead centre.


Barnaby Benson


Date posted: 08/12/2015


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