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Are you talking to me? Getting the right tone of voice in your customer communication

Woman listeningHow do you talk to your customers in your emails, mailings, letters and brochures? When it comes to customer communication, how you say something is just as important as what you are saying, explains Drayton Bird

Do you suffer from a crippling condition called deadline panic?

I do — and it attacked me with some ferocity recently when after a few glasses of cheering sangria I looked at my schedule for the week.

I was immediately reminded of a maxim by one of my old bosses: "Whatever you're doing, you should have started sooner," Bill Phillips.

Bill Phillips ran Ogilvy & Mather when I sold my old agency to them, and we both like quotations. One of his I particularly appreciate is "A neat stall is the sign of a dead horse" — and if you saw my desk, you'd know why.

Anyhow, I realised with some alarm that I was going to Bucharest and Kiev that week to do four seminars, one of which I hadn't written yet. Since it takes a couple of days' work to put together a good talk, this was quite a worry, so I started going through possible material.

And by chance I found one or two good quotations. The first is from Evelyn Waugh, one of the great comic writers of the 20th century, and a wonderful stylist.

During the Second World War he and his wife used to write to each other and on one occasion he wrote complaining about how dull her letters were.

"A good letter is like a conversation," he wrote.

This reminded me of a meeting I had with the managing director of Mercedes Passenger Cars about seven years ago when we started doing their direct marketing.

He was concerned about the tone of their copy — and in fact that is why we got the business. We talked about this for a while, then I said, "Have you ever actually sold cars?"

"Yes," he said.

Then I asked: "Did you talk to your customers the way you've been talking to me?"

"Yes," he confirmed.

"Well," I replied. "That is the kind of tone your direct mail should have."

The difference between good copy and so-so copy is largely about tone. Of course, few writers even understand the basics, but even if they do most write with a sort of half-witted enthusiasm, where everything is "fabulous" and "exciting". So the copy lacks credibility. Readers say, "Oh, come on."

The really good copy is conversational in tone, and is adapted to suit the context

So, read your copy out loud. Does it sound like someone talking? It should.

And does it sound like typical 'sales' copy any one of your competitors could run. It shouldn't.

The other thing to watch out for is that the language must be appropriate to the writer — and the recipient.

If you're supposed to be the chairman, write like a wise and friendly adviser. If you're writing to another chairman, write as an equal. If you're supposed to be someone who handles complaints, adapt accordingly. And so on.

It's deceptively simple - but not that easy to do. You just have to work at it.

Drayton Bird is a renowned direct marketing teacher, speaker and author. Find out more about him on his profile.

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