“Um, what gives? Your email?!”
Ever had an email land poorly? Usually it is not what I said, but how I said it. If my face-to-face relationship is authentic enough, I can weasel myself out. Of course, not everyone I write to is a long-time confidant. These moments of miscommunication are helpful reminders that I can’t take shortcuts.
Your mom isn’t tone deaf
We all shift tone often, mostly without effort. It’s a by-product of the true intent of our message. When your mother calls, instantaneously you know when she’s happy and when she isn’t. Part of the reason she makes you feel that way—good or bad—is the way she says it. It’s her tone.
Why is it so hard to get tone right?
I’m glad there are a few trusted people, like my mom, that I automatically understand. The rest of the world can be rather confusing. Why?
- We’re bombarded. There are very few moments in the day when we’re not. We read news, scan the billboards, listen at the checkout line and absorb many other non-verbal cues from the built spaces and people in our sphere. I’m exhausted just listing them, because all of these messages are layered on top of my personal relationships, email, mail, texts and phone calls which I need to read, sort and act on.
- We rarely plan ahead. We rarely pay attention to our options until we need to take action. Maybe that’s why we find a doctor once our symptoms are already upon us, according to recent research conducted by Altarum Institute. And insurance and administrators estimate that we spend just 20 minutes picking our health benefits—despite the fact that health insurance for a family of four is an annual purchase equal to a new car, according to Millman’s annual Medical Index. If there are too many choices, we’re paralyzed.
- We’re naturally distrustful. In the cerebral space of media planning, it’s easy to forget our first human need is for safety. Until we have an established relationship with the company or institution trying to communicate with us, we’re hesitant to sign up, sign in or listen in to online or print messages. Why? In part because we crave in-person communication; it’s much easier to suss out tone.
3 simple ways to get it right
So, what’s the how-to? How do you coach the new hire or evaluate the next draft that crosses your desk?
- Know your audience, well. To make your creative speak to your target audience, get their voices in your head so you can choose words and images that will get past their first layer of defense. How? Talk to them in focus groups or conduct market research interviews. If they are employees, hang out in break rooms or other work locations. Scan the patient satisfaction surveys but take the time to read the write-in comments. Pick up the words they use, the formality or lack of it.
- Make it clear. To communicate authentically, ditch the insurance, medical or lawyerly terms even if your target audience includes people who enjoy 75 cent words. Once you’ve pared back there, try reading it aloud. Any awkward spots? If you pause too many times, it’s likely because you need to simplify. Once it’s working for your team, test it with your target audience.
- Pair words and images purposefully. Easier said than accomplished, I know. Do you agree that this photo would have a whole different tone if it was shot at high noon? Harsh sun is the phrase that comes to mind. Even if you’re using stock photos or simple icons, good creative teams can stitch together these elements.