Brand tone of voice in action on the South Western line
So there I was on the 7:48 to Brighton and the train was packed with school kids off their faces on Haribo and Facebook status updates.
I was tinkering with some copy and finding it particularly difficult to concentrate.
A gaggle of lads (I’m guessing 14-15 year olds) were sharing their thoughts about pictures of the fairer sex that they were drooling over on their smartphones.
Alexander Graham Bell must have been turning in his grave.
Lad 1: “She’s a ****ing right ******, I’d ****ing **** her **** off.”
Lad 2: “****ing yeah, ****ing ****!”
There was no let up, the expletives kept coming thick and fast, at a volume that made everyone in the carriage over the age of 25 feel increasingly uncomfortable about. Not that I did a quantitative survey, but I could feel the man next to me squirming in his seat and the ladies sitting diagonally opposite had that ‘ooh, well I never’ expression on their faces.
Of course, the kids were totally oblivious of the anti-social ripples of nastiness they were creating. They were holidaying in Banterland and had probably forgotten they were in a public space.
The tone of voice they were running with (somewhere between ‘moron’ and ‘mysoginistic scumbag’) was starting to jar pretty badly.
I couldn’t write a single word, so I closed my laptop and tried to mentally shut them out, but their torrent of filth just got louder and more unpleasant. Then the inevitable internal dialogue kicked-in, in earnest.
Me: “I wish they’d shut up.”
Conscience: “Well go and have a word then.”
Me: “Are you mad?”
Conscience: “Someone should say something.”
Me: “Exactly, someone. But not me.”
Conscience: “Why not you?”
Me: “There’s at least 6 or 7 of them.”
Conscience: “They’re only kids.”
Me: “Yeah but, I’ll get a load of abuse, then I’ll have to sit here for the rest of the journey looking like a right idiot.”
Conscience: “Are you scared?”
Me: “What if they stab me?”
Conscience: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Me: “These things happen.”
Conscience: “What a drama queen”.
Me: “Yeah, but…”
Me: “Do you really want me to die?”
Me: “Right then, here goes…”
Time to send in the sweaty-palmed cavalry
At this point I had no plan, but my inner guide wasn’t going to shut up, so I purposely got out of my seat (heart trying to thump its way out of my chest) and strutted straight over to the gang of zombie-apocalypse serial killers sprawled around a 4-seater table. I leant, both palms firmly planted on the tabletop, looming over them – and the following forthright waffle came out of my mouth:
“Gents; can you please sort the language out. I know it’s difficult and to be honest, I probably used to say the same kind of things when I was your age, but think, somebody sitting over there might be someone’s Mum and it really doesn’t sound nice. So if you could just…”
Before I dug myself any deeper, the ringleader of the vicious gang of axe-wielding maniacs looked up at me with all the colour draining from his face and said, “sorry”.
Then he said “sorry” three more times and muttered something about “not doing it again”. The machete-carrying psychopath had turned back into a 15-year old schoolboy and all was good with the world once more.
I was so impressed with his polite response that I wanted to ruffle his hair or treat him to a bag of sherbert pips. But common sense dragged me away from acting out some kind of weird missing scene from The Railway Children and took me back to my seat.
It was only a couple of weeks later I realised what a perfect demonstration of brand tone of voice in action this little episode had been.
Setting your tone of voice is basically about choosing the right words and delivering them in the right way for your audience.
Brand tone of voice 1: Foul-mouthed depraved pig-boy
Particularly effective when wishing to communicate a lower-than-average IQ, or for upsetting little old ladies.
Brand tone of voice 2: Firm, but polite have-a-go hero
Delivered with total conviction, this can disarm crack-crazed desperados, or in extreme cases, Sussex schoolboys.
Brand tone of voice 3: Sincere and humble underling
Perfect for diffusing unpleasant situations before they have a chance of escalating.
The moral of the story? Words are powerful things. If you want to get the right message across, make sure you get your brand tone of voice right before opening your mouth/sending an email/writing your website.
And there’s more on brand positioning and tone of voice here.