“I don’t like your tone.”
You’ve heard the adage, It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
(Actually, if you want to get your message across, you should pay careful attention to both what you say and how you say it.)
When we communicate with our fellow humans, tone of voice helps us convey meaning.
That’s what allows my son, in the time-honored tradition of 13-year-olds, to infuse his monosyllabic agreement to take the dog out with a rich sense of suffering and forbearance.
But text has to work harder.
If you use the social web at all, you probably see someone put their digital foot in their mouth virtually every day by making poor word choices.
Add to that the fact that there’s a political or potentially controversial subtext that can be attached to almost any statement, and it starts to feel like a minefield out there.
Fortunately, we’ve got handy writing techniques like word choice, story, and connotation to help us master tone.
Because when you get the tone right, you start to resonate with the perfect audience for your product or service — and your content can really start to shine.
Tool #1: The words you choose
All careful writers know that there’s no such thing as a true synonym. Every word carries its own set of associations and nuances that color the writing.
Some shades of meaning are fairly neutral. I nearly always prefer use over utilize because it’s clearer and less pretentious. But it doesn’t particularly identify me as having a particular set of values or beliefs.
Other synonyms carry a more potent cultural charge.
Despicable and deplorable seem like they mean pretty close to the same thing. But the first has been colored by a silly and charming series of animated movies. The second is a well-known insult (then claimed as a badge of honor) for supporters of a political figure.
Careful writers chase down the nuances of the language they choose. They think long and hard about the selection of each word. And they strive to choose the word that conveys the subtleties they’re after.
Tool #2: The stories you tell
The stories you tell carry nuances as well.
In many ways, The Star Thrower story and the “I don’t have to outrun the bear” joke illustrate the same point.
They’re both about accomplishing the next small but meaningful goal, rather than focusing on overwhelming or impossible ones.
But The Star Thrower story about a lone figure rescuing sea stars on the beach is a favorite of nonprofits, nature lovers, and the more liberal on the political spectrum.
The joke about a runner not needing to outrun the bear, just needing to outrun his hapless hiking companion, appeals more to “cutthroat” competitive types who don’t mind metaphors that are a bit on the gory side.
The first story would be a good choice if you’re speaking to The Nature Conservancy. The second would be a better fit for a sales meeting that embraced good-natured but intense rivalry.
Both stories are memorable and effective. But the one you choose depends on who you want to talk to and the nuances you want to get across.
Tool #3: The values you embrace
If you want to talk about a difficult problem that you overcame, you could use words like Honor, courage, and commitment — which happen to be the stated values of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Or you could write that, nevertheless, you persisted — which echoes a statement made about Senator Elizabeth Warren when she refused to silence her criticism of a candidate in a confirmation hearing.
“Nevertheless, she persisted” became a feminist rallying cry … and went on to be used as the title of an episode of Supergirl.
Simple, ordinary English words … but their associations connect them to a larger cultural context.
Some feel that this kind of language is divisive. I think of it as identifying the people who resonate with you — and not worrying too much about the people who don’t.
For example, if you believe that a film scene of Nick Fury washing dishes is an example of “male-bashing,” it’s fine with me if you look elsewhere for your marketing and writing advice.
The weight of connotation
In 2019, every seemingly innocent pop culture reference can carry the weight of connotation.
Enjoyed the last comic book or science fiction movie you saw? Your choice of favorite pop cult character can send a message to your audience about your larger worldview.
(I’m on Team Leia. Always will be.)
Comic artist Matt Furie found this out to his chagrin when his easygoing character Pepe the Frog was embraced by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. (It should be pointed out that this was never Furie’s intention, and references to the goofy frog character are used innocently by many people.)
It would be nice if there was a giant decoder ring to look up the connotations attached to various references, but alas, the environment moves too quickly.
Sites like Know Your Meme are helpful, but the best way to stay current is just to keep your eyes and ears open on social and stay attuned to how messages are moving through the culture … and specifically, to the people you care about talking to.
The unity principle
If all of this chasing down nuance, meaning, and connotation sounds like too much work, keep in mind that your first duty as a marketer is to understand your audience.
If they have strong reactions to Pepe, you need to know what those are.
If they have no idea, you can safely move on to what they do care about.
Embrace nuance and connotation not just to find out what you don’t want to put your foot in, but to choose the language and stories that make the strongest connections with your audience about their values and beliefs.