Branding is an important part of any business, but it involves more than just choosing a signature colour scheme and designing a logo. In reality, branding is about the impression you want to give: the feeling you want to evoke that will convince people to choose you over your competitors. And one of the most important ways to do so is determining how you talk to your target market — specifically, what register and tone you use when you do so.
Register? Tone? What the hell are they?
Both terms discuss how you address your audience, and although there is some overlap, these words have very distinct meanings when it comes to writing, editing, and content strategy.
What is register?
Let’s take a look at the following sentence:
“Atorvastatin is contraindicated in women who are pregnant.”
Does that sound a bit too formal and technical? Try this sentence instead:
“Women who are pregnant should not take Lipitor or any generic version of this drug.”
Both sentences contain the same information, but what’s different about them is their register. “Register” is all about the audience and what special, technical, or industry-specific terms are necessary to use (or to avoid) given the correct context. The first sentence uses specialized terms that are suited towards a specific audience — medical professionals, in this case — while the second sentence uses language that would be more appropriate for a general or lay audience.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the “rightness” of their use depends on context. The first sentence sounds much more at home in a research paper or at a conference than the second, while it would be out of place within a general-interest website or glossy magazine.
Think about it like this: are you a lawyer writing for other lawyers, or a lawyer writing for newcomers to Canada who need legal aid? Those two audiences require drastically different registers.
What is tone?
If “register” is all about using words that suit a specific audience or a specific context, “tone” is about your pose or stance towards that audience. Put very, very roughly, register is about what you say and tone is about how you say it.
Recently, I started to do some editorial work with a large company that offers the same service to different target markets under different brand names. In particular, one brand is more “general consumer” oriented while the other brand specifically targets millennials. The infrastructure behind how the company offers its services to each demographic doesn’t change, but its brand guidelines for how it approaches its separate audiences is extremely tone-specific.
Let’s imagine that this company is crafting a 404 page for each of its websites targeted towards a specific audience. A 404 message tells users that the page they’re trying to visit doesn’t exist – this often happens if you click on a broken or dead link. The 404 message for the general-interest brand might say this:
“We’re sorry, but we can’t find the page you’re looking for. Please visit our homepage to start over, or use the search bar.”
This message sounds fairly informal, but addresses the reader in a neutral way. In contrast, the 404 message for the brand that targets millennials might adopt a tone that’s far more informal or whimsical:
“Uh-oh! This page is missing! How’d that happen? To get back on track, head to the homepage or start a new search.”
The tone your company uses can run the gamut from professional to informal to playful, and even to judgmental or hostile. It all depends on how you want to relate to your audience.
How do tone and register affect your business?
Understanding who your audience is and how to talk to them effectively is a huge part of branding. This means that understanding how tone and register work will be an important part of your success.
One mistake many businesses make is to use high-register language to look important, official, or knowledgeable to their target audiences. The thinking here is that using “smart” or complex language will make you appear competent, and therefore worthy of trust. However, adopting a more complex register when it’s unnecessary can often backfire. Instead of trying to make yourself look good, you need to understand who your audience is, what they want, and what expectations they have of you that you are (or aren’t) meeting.
For example, if you’re running a website that provides friendly, straightforward advice to new parents learning to care for their children, then an article on how to deal with a fever is not the place to use terms like “antipyretic” or “contraindicated” without explaining what they mean. Your readers are probably frustrated or desperate, and they just want their kid to get better! Using fancy language in a bid to look medically authoritative is not going to solve their problem, and in fact may discourage them so much that they look for more user-friendly advice elsewhere.
Using tone and register properly in your company’s customer-facing material is all about giving your readers the respect to meet them where they stand. And if that respect isn’t there — say, for example, because you use complicated technical jargon to impress or intimidate, rather than inform — your audience will recognize it and start to disengage, even if they can’t put a finger on the problem.
Image source: ITU Pictures, via flickr.com.