It wasn’t what you said. It was how you said it.
After 26 years of marriage, my wife, Elizabeth, and I fight about very few things. But when we do fight, it’s rarely about something one or the other said, but rather the way one of us said it.
It’s not the tone itself that causes the argument. It’s how the speaker’s tone caused the listener to infer a meaning that might or might not be the one intended. I can tell you that my first name can mean many things depending on the tone in which it’s said.
Actually, it was both what you said, and how you said it.
Beyond communicating meaning, tone of voice also contains strong signals about who we are and whether we’re believable.
Audiences pick up on clues about where speakers (and writers) are from, their education level, age, values, sincerity, and authority from their tone.
Of course, it’s possible to misinterpret every one of those things. That’s where the depth of trust between speaker and listener is helped by having a variety of tones of voice. As Steven M. R. Covey said in his book The Speed of Trust, “In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will get your meaning. In a low trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.”
How we speak, listen, and associate meaning with communication is influenced by our experience and our recognition of tone patterns.
One marketing exec I knew would judge proposals from his core team based on how confidently they were expressed. He was – ahem – confident about what he thought confidence sounded like. But he started to get it wrong as his team added new members with different presentation styles.
Brand communicators tend to think that developing a single tone of voice helps deliver consistent value to our audiences. Many are sure their one way of saying something is completely natural. But mono-tone can get them into trouble, especially when talking to new audiences or about topics that are out of a familiar pattern for them and for their audiences.
Now is an opportune time to see this phenomenon in action. Here’s an experiment. Scroll through your social media feed. Chances are, the number of people trying to tell you something about the news is overwhelming. And, it’s something you’ve never heard from them before. If you’re like me, how you hear all those somethings in your head changes based on how well you know them (and if you know them well enough to know if they have more than one tone).
You probably know most of these voices have good intentions. But your level of belief, or trust, is likely different depending on the way each said it. From some, the tone is familiar, comforting. From others, the same tone might seem alarmist or condescending.
In good and bad ways, it’s not just what they said, it’s how they said it.
When brand communicators struggle with what to say – it’s not that we’re always seeking the right words. It may be because we don’t have the right way to say it. If we work on developing multiple tones of voice, we’ll develop deeper trust with our audiences – and then everything from the goofiest tweet to communicating the actions we’re taking in a global crisis – will land better. Both because of what we say and the way we choose to say it.
It’s your story. Tell it well.