Jacob Rees-Mogg – would tone of voice guidelines help?

Many of you, dear readers, don’t know how to write.
It’s not your fault, of course.
But, equally, you are not entirely free from blame.

While we can all see that Labour plays a role for failing standards in this country, we all have to do our bit.
You will undoubtedly have seen the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg’s note to those members of the civil service staff who weren’t at their desk when he visited.
It’s an excellent exemplar of how to communicate.
If perhaps you weren’t paying attention, you can see a copy of it represented below.

Tone of voice guidelines

Had enough, yet?
Me too.

What’s wrong with the language of the man sometimes described as ‘the Honourable Member for the 18th Century?’
And how do you avoid sounding like him in your own writing?
And if you’re creating a brand, what can you learn from this about your brand tone of voice guidelines?

The note above was an attempt to encourage people back to working in the office.
Except that it’s classic passive-aggressive, attempting to shame the recipient.
Thought I’d like to suggest, the problem lies deeper.

No need to visit the 18th Century to unpick things, we can go back to the 60s.
The theory of Transactional Analysis is good on human relationships.
It also helps me understand why writing goes wrong sometimes:

guidelines tone of voice

In short, we operate in 1 of 3 different ego states at any moment.
And so does the person we’re talking to.
Wires cross when we adopt the wrong ego state for the person we’re talking to.

In the case of Jacob Rees-Mogg, he assumed that he had a Parental role.
Only someone operating in Child mode would respond well to that.
(Ironically, the opposite of the responsible worker he was hoping to encourage.)

Can Transactional Analysis improve your brand tone of voice guidelines?
When we’re writing for the outside world, naturally we respect our consumers.
We’re talking to them as peers.
You’ll often see this mentioned in good brand tone of voice guidelines.
But it becomes more difficult when we need to tell people what to do.
One of the worst failures was this campaign on the London Underground:

Tone of voice

Childish rhymes.
Implying that we are best spoken to in a childish voice.

It’s increasingly difficult to exert authority.
Most of the establishments we once trusted have let us down.
Hierarchies are seen as inherently unjust.
Sometimes though, you need to find the voice of authority.
One of my favourite examples of getting it right is at Border Control:

brand tone of voice

It’s clear.
It doesn’t apologise for having authority.
But it also explains why it’s asking for what it’s asking for.

(I’d love to see their brand tone of voice guidelines if you know someone that has them.)

This is Adult to Adult in the Transactional Model.
Accepting that one adult has authority.
But that the other person is still an adult.
And therefore, they’re due an explanation for a rule.

How to check your own writing.
Getting your writing wrong inside your company can have damaging effects.
It is hugely demotivating.
It creates barriers that don’t need to exist.
Checking your writing though, is easy.
Here’s how we recommend it.

What’s the ego state of the person reading this?
They have to be in Adult state if you want them to take responsibility.
Talking to them as though they’re in any other state won’t work.

Sometimes, the problem is, caring too much.
From my reading, the Parent state reflects the attitudes of our early caregivers.
That can be wonderful.
Or it can be the memory of an unreasoned set of rules.
When we’re leading a company, we are there to set rules.
The difference between the Parent state and the Adult state is how we rationalise.
Instead of ‘shoulds’ (Parent state), we can rationalise and simply explain (Adult state).

When we don’t explain, we end up creating another set of rules.
And sounding just like the Rt. Hon. Member in one of his earlier letters to staff:

We are the language animal.
We use language to share ideas.
And critically, build relationships.

Every time we write something, we’re not just communicating our idea.
We’re communicating what we think of the other person.
That’s why I think Transactional Analysis can help writers.
And why the best writers are highly empathetic people.

If you’d like to read more on teaching your team to write, take a look at Chapter 43 of my book:
“Training, explaining, and complaining.”

If you’d like me to send you that chapter, just email me.
If you’d like to read the whole book on how your language shapes your company,
you can buy here it on Amazon.

If you’d rather give money to Ukraine than Jeff Bezos’ rocket, here’s an idea:
email me and I’ll send you a copy.
I’ll send you a beautifully formatted pdf.
And whatever you want to pay for the book (RRP £11.27), I’ll pass onto the Red Cross.

Thank you.

To see other blog posts, click here.

About Verbal Identity

We are writers, strategists and linguistics experts: super-specialists in the magic and mechanics of language. We know how language creates thinking. And how – if you shape the language of your company, your comms and your customers – you shape what people think and do, read more…

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