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Readability Tone Voice Storytelling


It's All About Attitude

Tone is often lumped together with voice, but they’re different in critical ways. Voice projects the personality of the “speaker” through words, while tone reflects that speaker’s posture, or attitude toward the subject. Put another way, tone could be described like an emotion, e.g.  happy, angry.

It’s a fine line, but understanding the difference is key to producing good copy.

Good copy covers what you want to say — in other words, the message. Better copy addresses what a specific audience needs to hear. Great copy considers how the message comes across and who the messenger is. Tone is the how.


Let’s say you sell outdoor products — camping equipment, rugged outerwear, etc.

You know the new products and your target customer very well and identify a basic message framework:

  • All the best brands under one roof. Outdoor types know what they want, and you have it. You don’t sell anything you won’t stand behind.
  • Knowledgeable staff. The people on the floor know their stuff and personally use the gear you sell. They won’t steer you wrong.
  • Ironclad guarantee. A no-questions-asked return policy in addition to the manufacturer warranty.

In this case, the “voice” should be pretty obvious — probably a young-ish, well-traveled adventurer so you can use words like “stoked” or “sick.” But what about tone?

Well, considering the messages and the voice, tone words might include confident, enthusiastic, well-traveled. What does that look like in practice? Consider the following “generic” description of a backpack:

The Talon backpack is 40L and made from tough 1000-Denier nylon. A generous main compartment features a padded laptop sleeve and a zippered mesh pocket for accessories. The patented XStrap system keeps it secured tightly to your back while a padded hip belt and internal frame help support the pack’s weight.

A serviceable description, but no particular voice and no tone. It sounds like it was pasted from the manufacturer’s tag. Let’s run it past our young adventurer:

If you’re a one-bag type who doesn’t like trade-offs, you can’t beat the Talon 40L pack. We’ve tested dozens in this size range and this was the unanimous fave. The roomy main compartment can swing a week’s worth of clothes (and even muddy shoes thanks to a separate bottom compartment). Talon’s stowable XStrap system feels balanced and sturdy without a big weight cost, and the beefy 1000-denier construction feels like it could stop a bullet (but don’t try). Throw in a surprisingly usable Pertex integrated rain cover and you’ve got a pack that can handle anything from airport shuttles to the Andes.

Did confidence come through? How about enthusiasm and well-traveled? Which sounds more like a young adventurer?

Do you really need to choose a tone?

Do you choose a tone when speaking? You do if you care about what you’re saying and/or want somebody to do something.

Think of someone you know with an engaging, attention-holding tone. What words do they use and how? Is their tone urgent or relaxed? How do they gesture and what expressions do they use?

Now imagine them describing something incredible, like an eagle they saw on a hike. How would they describe it? Amazing? Magnificent? Stupendous? That depends on their personality, or voice. But how they say it it depends on their intentions. That’s tone.

Readability scores for this page:

Average grade level: 8
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: 70.1
Percent complex words: 14.1%

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