Tips from Drayton Bird

Drayton Bird, former International Creative Director and Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather explains what is meant by tone and charm and how to achieve it.

In advertising circles, people are often heard talking about tone in a copy. It is a term that causes all sorts of difficulties. An Account Handler will often hear a client say he doesn’t like the tone of a letter. When the copywriter gets the message from the hapless Account Handler, he is reduced to gibbering fury.

What is Tone in Copywriting?

According to Drayton Bird, the copywriter gets infuriated because of two reasons.

“First, because he believes anything he writes is perfect anyhow – how can the client presume to criticize it? Second, because saying something has the wrong tone is a pretty vague way of criticizing it. But in this, as in many areas, it’s a good idea to liken the situation to a face to face meeting.

“We all know of times where we meet somebody and we say: ‘I don’t like his manner.’ Or: ‘We didn’t get on well together – it was just a matter of personal chemistry.’ What you are actually saying is that the person you met – as far as you are concerned – didn’t speak in the appropriate manner. Exactly the same thing occurs on a copy. And I liken it to charm.

“We all know people who are charming. People who seem to get on with almost everybody. And the reason is quite simple. They take the trouble to study the person they are talking to and approach them in a sympathetic manner, based upon that study. That is precisely what the ‘right tone’ achieves.

Brilliant Copy versus Competent Copy

Bird divides copy into categories – the hopeless, the competent and the excellent which he says is rarely encountered. The hopeless is copy which is totally wrong, because it is wrongly constructed or doesn’t have the right offer in it, or it’s talking about the wrong thing to the right person or the right thing to the wrong person, or the writer simply doesn’t have sufficient writing skills.

The writer of competent copy understands the makings of good copy – the right order, the right offer, the right tricks to keep people reading, vivid language as opposed to dull language, attention to talking about ‘you’ rather than ‘we,’ etc. But knowing the basic rules is not enough, says Bird. What’s the difference between copy that’s OK and copy that’s brilliant?

In Bird’s view, the tone is very often what adds the magic. The vast majority of copy which simply works adequately has everything in it except that magic. The writers who produce this sort of stuff written in exactly the same way no matter who they are addressing. Imagine a CEO having to read a letter which should actually be targeted to an architect!

Quoting Bird: “Outstanding writers seem to have a way of disarming their prospect in just the same way as a charming individual can disarm somebody he is trying to persuade to do something. Poor writers simply don’t make the effort to be charming – which all starts, of course, with understanding who you are writing to.”

Three Simple Checks a Copywriter Can Make

Bird suggests three questions writers can ask to ensure they achieve the appropriate tone and charm in their copy. Have they differentiated the tone depending upon who they’re writing to? Just as important, have they varied the tone according to whose name they’re writing under? Clearly, the Manager of a shop offering bargains will write entirely differently to the way a Bank Manager would write.

The third question the writer must ask himself is whether he has taken the trouble to understand the individuals he is writing to, is that he can say something that will appeal to them and charm them?

How to Write an Appealing Direct Mail Letter

According to Drayton Bird, the magic ingredient that differentiates competent copy from the excellent copy is tone. Tone can be defined as a charm which is a result of the copywriter knowing who he’s writing to and what appeals to the individual. The writer must also keep in mind that he’s writing as someone else and his tone must be one this individual will use. For instance, a bank manager will write differently from a shop manager offering bargains.