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TONE IS ATTITUDE — ATTITUDE IS TONE.

copywriting attitudes

‘What is tone?’ Maybe it’s in the air this year but a lot of people have been asking me this question.  The short answer is attitude. This is a particular view or feeling you show on a subject.

Whatever your view/feeling, it’s going to come through your writing and colour your words in a particular shade of tonality — sincere/devious, witty/inane, caring/indifferent, cold/warm, melancholy/joyful, affectionate/callous, aggressive/considerate, the list goes on and you can view it down below.

Even if there’s no feeling coming through you to your words, then that’s still an attitude. And it will show in your writing as lacklustre, vapid, mediocre, flat, dull or bland.

Attitude comes with the job, so it’s important to make it work for you. Now attitude should not be confused with personality — which is ‘the voice’.

 

Rule of Thumb: Tone = Attitude; Voice = Personality.

 

You’ve heard of ‘brand personality’ in the selling department and ‘characterisation’ in the telling department; both are the same thing. A personality like George Clooney can be angry in one scene, and affectionate in another. Same personality, different attitude. A brand like Apple (which TBWA Chiat/Day created in Steve Jobs’ own image — creative, fearless and far-sighted) can come across as arrogant in one story, and inspiring in another. Same persona, different attitude.

 

People might read your words, but they feel your attitude

 

These are the three sides that inform us of the writer’s attitude. And the variations on each are many. In terms of the subject, you may be angry, amused, excited, unimpressed or one hundred and one other shades of feeling about the topic. Choose the right attitude before you start writing so you can be sure your reader responds accordingly.

When it comes to attitude toward the reader, you need to be hyper-sensitive about how you come across. Most of the time, we are having a dialogue with our reader and so a friendly, warmhearted and helpful attitude is the preferred default. Within those three tonalities the possibilities are almost endless — admiring, appreciative, candid, thoughtful, encouraging, humble, just to mention a few. But if you want to treat your readers as intellectual inferiors, then you’re guaranteed unqualified success with an impersonal, indifferent, lecturing approach. And the possibilities? Acerbic, hostile, indignant, pompous, condescending, demeaning, unsympathetic, cold, glib and so on to the inevitable bitter end.

Finally, there’s your attitude toward you — the writer writing. As I said in the Rule of Thumb section, copywriters are mainly writing on behalf of another. But if, for example, you are writing a blog post, an editorial or fiction, then you are the voice. You may regard yourself very seriously or with amused detachment; you may be the highly rational, feisty first person or the highly emotional, ardent type; you may be humble and self-deprecating or awe-struck and enthusiastic. You may be any combination of these or any others from the A–Z of Attitudes list below.

 

Attitude is not just a feeling but also diction.

 

Now that we’ve understood attitude as the feeling behind the words, the other main factor in tone is diction — the very words you choose. Depending on your reader, you may choose slang words of a particular culture; colloquial expressions of a specific demography and/or geography; jargon that’s characteristic of a particular profession, trade or pursuit. In short, the right language (another word for diction) can help the reader connect with the piece and author. Here are four levels (altitudes) of diction to help you on your way to making the right connection.

  1. Elevated/Formal — for a highly educated audience. Example: Peruse
  2. Neutral/ Standard — for a well-educated audience. Example: Examine
  3. Neutral/ Informal — for a familiar audience. Example. Look over
  4. Low/Non-standard — for a specific audience. Example: check it out

 

ELEVATED/FORMALNEUTRAL/STANDARDNEUTRAL/INFORMALLOW/NON-STANDARD
PeruseExamineLook overCheck it out
NotableOutstandingAmazingAwesome
RegrettablyUnfortunatelySadlyIt’s a bummer that …
ExcellentFirst-RateTop-notchPhat
ReviewDiscussTalk AboutChat
QuestionEnquireQueryGrill
UndistinguishedUninspiringBoringMeh
DeliberateConsiderThink AboutMull Over
ElectChoosePickOpt
EndureTolerateBearPut up with
RespondAddressAnswerTake one up with
ConceiveEnvisageImagineCook up
NarcissisticSelf-centredStuck UpYouniversal
IntelligentSmartBrainyAll there
PhenomenalIncredibleOut-of-this-worldDoozie

As you can see (and feel), each of these words has its own attitude and creates a certain atmosphere referred to here as “mood”. When choosing an atmospheric level, first be clear who it is you’re writing to. A particular audience will have particular expectations about the level of diction you talk to them in. A banker will put money on “unanticipated” while a rapper will bling to “stiplificated”.

Secondly, be clear of your purpose. There are four purposes in writing —to inform, to persuade, to instruct and to entertain (plus combinations of each). Purpose will inform you of the most appropriate level of diction.

 

Don’t you write to me in that tone of voice!

 

Just like the tone you use when talking to somebody face-to-face, tone in writing determines how your reader responds. If your piece sounds aggressive, the reader gets nervous. If it’s dull and clichéd, the reader goes zzzzzzzzzz. If it’s insightful and witty, the reader settles in for a satisfying read.

The most reliable way to detect tone problems is by reading it aloud. Better still, imagine you’re speaking the words to your particular reader like they were staring you in the face. The sound of your voice will immediately tell you where your words sit on the attitude spectrum. And your visualisation will show you the reaction of your reader.

Unlike journalists, copywriters usually write on behalf of different brands and/or personalities. So we need to be master actors like Jeffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer) and Mathew McConaughey (Gold). You need to be able to move in and out of personalities to affect character and express a particular attitude to set the right mood.

To guide you on your way, I’ve curated a list of tones so as to open you to the possibilities beyond the bland, the blander and the blandissimo.

But before anything, start with these three questions:

  1. Why am I writing this?
  2. Who is my target audience?
  3. What do I want the reader’s intended response to be?

Your answers will supply you with sufficient emotional intelligence to accurately tune your tone in the right key.

Given all the variables, the possibilities of tone to subject, reader and self are almost endless. Choose mindfully … and moodfully. You can start by perusing/examining/looking over/checking out this glossary of attitudes curated by Amanda Patterson (founder of Writers Write) below. What’s more, my Copywriting in Action Online course will give you plenty of practice in tone and attitude for all types of writing to all types of audiences.

 

The Writer’s A–Z of Attitudinal Tonalities.

 

ToneMeaning
Absurdillogical; ridiculous; silly; implausible; foolish
Accusatorysuggesting someone has done something wrong, complaining
Acerbicsharp; forthright; biting; hurtful; abrasive; severe
Admiringapproving; think highly of; respectful; praising
Aggressivehostile; determined; forceful; argumentative
Aggrievedindignant; annoyed; offended; disgruntled
Ambivalenthaving mixed feelings; uncertain; in a dilemma; undecided
Amusedentertained; diverted; pleased
Angryincensed or enraged; threatening or menacing
Animatedfull of life or excitement; lively; spirited; impassioned; vibrant
Apatheticshowing little interest; lacking concern; indifferent; unemotional
Apologeticfull of regret; repentant; remorseful; acknowledging failure
Appreciativegrateful; thankful; showing pleasure; enthusiastic
Ardententhusiastic; passionate
Arrogantpompous; disdainful; overbearing; condescending; vain; scoffing
Assertiveself-confident; strong-willed; authoritative; insistent
Awestruckamazed, filled with wonder/awe; reverential
Belligerenthostile; aggressive; combatant
Benevolentsympathetic; tolerant; generous; caring; well meaning
Bitterangry; acrimonious; antagonistic; spiteful; nasty
Callouscruel disregard; unfeeling; uncaring; indifferent; ruthless
Candidtruthful, straightforward; honest; unreserved
Causticmaking biting, corrosive comments; critical
Cautionarygives warning; raises awareness; reminding
Celebratorypraising; pay tribute to; glorify; honour
Chattyinformal; lively; conversational; familiar
Colloquialfamiliar; everyday language; informal; colloquial; casual
Comichumorous; witty; entertaining; diverting
Compassionatesympathetic; empathetic; warm-hearted; tolerant; kind
Complexhaving many varying characteristics; complicated
Compliantagree or obey rules; acquiescent; flexible; submissive
Concernedworried; anxious; apprehensive
Conciliatoryintended to placate or pacify; appeasing
Condescendingstooping to the level of one’s inferiors; patronising
Confusedunable to think clearly; bewildered; vague
Contemptuousshowing contempt; scornful; insolent; mocking
Criticalfinding fault; disapproving; scathing; criticizing
Cruelcausing pain and suffering; unkind; spiteful; severe
Curiouswanting to find out more; inquisitive; questioning
Cynicalscornful of motives/virtues of others; mocking; sneering
Defensivedefending a position; shielding; guarding; watchful
Defiantobstinate; argumentative; defiant; contentious
Demeaningdisrespectful; undignified
Depressingsad, melancholic; discouraging; pessimistic
Derisivesnide; sarcastic; mocking; dismissive; scornful
Detachedaloof; objective; unfeeling; distant
Dignifiedserious; respectful; formal; proper
Diplomatictactful; subtle; sensitive; thoughtful
Disapprovingdispleased; critical; condemnatory
Dishearteningdiscouraging; demoralising; undermining; depressing
Disparagingdismissive; critical; scornful
Directstraightforward; honest
Disappointeddiscouraged; unhappy because something has gone wrong
Dispassionateimpartial; indifferent; unsentimental; cold; unsympathetic
Distressingheart-breaking; sad; troubling
Docilecompliant; submissive; deferential; accommodating
Earnestshowing deep sincerity or feeling; serious
Egotisticalself-absorbed; selfish; conceited; boastful
Empatheticunderstanding; kind; sensitive
Encouragingoptimistic; supportive
Enthusiasticexcited; energetic
Evasiveambiguous; cryptic; unclear
Excitedemotionally aroused; stirred
Facetiousinappropriate; flippant
Farcicalludicrous; absurd; mocking; humorous and highly improbable
Flippantsuperficial; glib; shallow; thoughtless; frivolous
Forcefulpowerful; energetic; confident; assertive
Formalrespectful; stilted; factual; following accepted styles/rules
Frankhonest; direct; plain; matter-of-fact
Frustratedannoyed; discouraged
Gentlekind; considerate; mild; soft
Ghoulishdelighting in the revolting or the loathsome
Grimserious; gloomy; depressing; lacking humour;macabre
Gulliblenaïve; innocent; ignorant
Hardunfeeling; hard-hearted; unyielding
Humbledeferential; modest
Humorousamusing; entertaining; playful
Hypercriticalunreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking
Impartialunbiased; neutral; objective
Impassionedfilled with emotion; ardent
Imploringpleading; begging
Impressionabletrusting; child-like
Inanesilly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical
Incensedenraged
Incredulousdisbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious
Indignantannoyed; angry; dissatisfied
Informativeinstructive; factual; educational
Inspirationalencouraging; reassuring
Intenseearnest; passionate; concentrated; deeply felt
Intimatefamiliar; informal; confidential; confessional
Ironicthe opposite of what is meant
Irreverentlacking respect for things that are generally taken seriously
Jadedbored; having had too much of the same thing; lack enthusiasm
Joyfulpositive; optimistic; cheerful; elated
Judgmentalcritical; finding fault; disparaging
Laudatorypraising; recommending
Light-Heartedcarefree; relaxed; chatty; humorous
Lovingaffectionate; showing intense, deep concern
Macabregruesome; horrifying; frightening
Maliciousdesiring to harm others or to see others suffer; ill-willed; spiteful
Mean-Spiritedinconsiderate; unsympathetic
Mockingscornful; ridiculing; making fun of someone
Mourninggrieving; lamenting; woeful
Naïveinnocent; unsophisticated; immature
Narcissisticself-admiring; selfish; boastful; self-pitying
Nastyunpleasant; unkind; disagreeable; abusive
Negativeunhappy, pessimistic
Nostalgicthinking about the past; wishing for something from the past
Objectivewithout prejudice; without discrimination; fair; based on fact
Obsequiousoverly obedient and/or submissive; fawning; grovelling
Optimistichopeful; cheerful
Outragedangered and resentful; furious; extremely angered
Outspokenfrank; candid; spoken without reserve
Patheticexpressing pity, sympathy, tenderness
Patronisingcondescending; scornful; pompous
Pensivereflective; introspective; philosophical; contemplative
Persuasiveconvincing; eloquent; influential; plausible
Pessimisticseeing the negative side of things
Philosophicaltheoretical; analytical; rational; logical
Playfulfull of fun and good spirits; humorous; jesting
Pragmaticrealistic; sensible
Pretentiousaffected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy
Regretfulapologetic; remorseful
Resentfulaggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter
Resignedaccepting; unhappy
Restrainedcontrolled; quiet; unemotional
Reverentshowing deep respect and esteem
Righteousmorally right and just; guiltless; pious; god-fearing
Satiricalmaking fun to show a weakness; ridiculing; derisive
Sarcasticscornful; mocking; ridiculing
Scathingcritical; stinging; unsparing; harsh
Scornfulexpressing contempt or derision; scathing; dismissive
Sensationalisticprovocative; inaccurate; distasteful
Sentimentalthinking about feelings, especially when remembering the past
Sincerehonest; truthful; earnesta
Scepticaldisbelieving; unconvinced; doubting
Solemnnot funny; in earnest; serious
Subjectiveprejudiced; biased
Submissivecompliant; passive; accommodating; obedient
Sulkingbad-tempered; grumpy; resentful; sullen
Sympatheticcompassionate; understanding of how someone feels
Thoughtfulreflective; serious; absorbed
Tolerantopen-minded; charitable; patient; sympathetic; lenient
Tragicdisastrous; calamitous
Unassumingmodest; self-effacing; restrained
Uneasyworried; uncomfortable; edgy; nervous
Urgentinsistent; saying something must be done soon
Vindictivevengeful; spiteful; bitter; unforgiving
Virtuouslawful; righteous; moral; upstanding
Whimsicalquaint; playful; mischievous; offbeat
Wittyclever; quick-witted; entertaining
Wonderawe-struck; admiring; fascinating
World-Wearybored; cynical; tired
Worriedanxious; stressed; fearful
Wretchedmiserable; despairing; sorrowful; distressed

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