Tone is Tough

We have had a running discussion in the office for the last week about ‘tone’. Tone is critical in communications. And it is hard to get right.

There are a lot of examples of when tone goes bad. A couple of current ones pop to mind:

The Federal Government’s ruling Conservatives have not changed their tone since gaining a majority. What was scrappy and necessary to get anything done in a minority now just seems like bullying when they hold all the power.

(Minister Baird)

Another example – this one of corporate tone gone wrong is the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project ad campaign.  This feels like a feminine hygiene product commercial. It manages to be irritating, condescending and ineffective all in 30 seconds.

There is precious little written about getting tone right, other than to say it is important. So what is the process? How do you check tone? When do you change tone?

As the discussion raged about the office, we came to realize that much of tone construction is done intuitively. We go through a process in our heads that we have not articulated and have never set down as a formal process. 

So here are some opening guidelines that I use:

Be a person – in most scenarios, I try to imagine the organization as a person. How would a person react to this? What would be a good response and what would not work? While there are differences between corporate, political and personal, it will often help clarify the desired tone.

Be real – make sure you understand the real issues and are responding to them. Is there a ‘hidden’ story? Are the parties using ‘code words’ that are hiding the real discussion? Platitudes will not get you very far in today’s world. Deal with the real issues in a real way.

Structured discovery sessions provide insight into striking the proper tone. If the leadership of the organization has defined its Desired Reputation—and the stakeholders most important to it—it will provide solid guidance in striking the right tone. The tone can be checked against each stakeholder group: how will they perceive it? Does it drive Desired Reputation?

The stated core values of the organization should also provide guidance. Brand and brand promise should be in the mix as well.

There is also something I will call ‘street cred’ that is important in establishing an authentic voice. An example: we have done a lot of work with Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site. The two partners that operate the site have very different street cred and, therefore, very different tone and voice for communication purposes.

Portlan Hotel Society is a downtown eastside activist group. Their tone can be gritty, aggressive, and visceral.


Vancouver Coastal Health is a child of the Provincial Government. They—and their voice—must be reasonable, restrained, measured and responsible.


A cautionary note on tone: beware of group think. It is extremely easy, within our corporate or political worlds, to fall into groupthink. Use consultants (like me!) or other external resources as a sounding board to check the tone.

More from our team on tone to come.

Michael