Katherine Wildman meets Nick Parker, the creator of the ‘tone of voice kit in a box’ – and Copywriting Conference 2017 speaker – to find out what Voicebox is all about…
Wouldn’t it be glorious if copywriting had a series of constants?
Like maths. Or chemistry. Take this. Add it to that. Et voilà – the right, or wrong answer.
It’s frustrating that copywriting doesn’t. Even though that’s part of the magic; part of what keeps us hooked and trying harder the next time and then the next time.
Talk to any copywriter, and it’s soon clear each one of us has a different working process, no matter where or how we started in this thing we call a career. But that’s also part of the reason that our stomachs clench. Our faces scrunch. And we hover over the ‘send’ button when we send any first draft to a new client.
Which is why we should all be kissing Nick Parker’s feet.
Soz, Nick, but it’s true.
The man admits to loving a process. And we can thank him for that. Because what he’s done, is he’s pinned down that process. Then he’s waved a magic wand and transformed it into a lovely, tactile and rather marvellous thing.
Meet Voicebox. The magic of tone.
It’s Nick’s creative process. And his experience. And his wit. In a box.
A real life, tactile, strokable and Bond Street-worthy box. A step-by-sexy-step guide to finding, creating and implementing that all-elusive, all-vital, all-magical alchemy that is a brand’s tone of voice or its “‘verbal identity’, ‘brand language’ or ‘brand voice’.”
At last, all the soul-searching, the floor pacing, the endless cup of coffee making process is over. Or at least the torturous aspect of it has been removed. (Because we all need coffee.)
There’s a guide to finding a tone of voice, people – a real-life guide.
This. Changes. Everything.
Oh, and it has tarot cards. (I know, right?) It’s time to open the (Voice)box and find out more.
Nick, when or where did you get the idea to create Voicebox?
It started for a very practical reason. A friend of mine runs a design agency, and he asked how he could explain what tone of voice is to one of his clients. My first response was ‘well, I’ll come along and explain it to them!’. But it really started me thinking about how to help people ‘get it’ as simply as possible. It grew from that piece of work – what’s the most practically useful way to help someone create a tone of voice if I’m not there to help them do it – right from the planning to the defining through to doing the actual writing.
And it also seemed like the right time for some new thinking about tone of voice, to be honest. There are so many brands doing brilliant things with their tone of voice these days that there just seemed like a real opportunity for some fresh thinking.
Also – if I’m honest, there’s a lot of shabby rubbish work out there in the name of tone of voice. Big agencies slapping a couple of generic recycled pages of blah into brand guidelines and calling it a tone of voice. My megalomaniac hope is that Voicebox and the primary voices becomes the default industry way of talking about tone of voice! Which’ll obviously be great for my sales – but would also call bullshit on lazy work.
So, who is Voicebox for?
It’s for anybody really who needs to pin down or shake up a tone of voice, whether that’s for a whole brand or even just for a single project. So that’s start-ups and small businesses, or bigger brands, or marketing teams who might need a tone of voice for a new product or proposition – and of course for copywriters and agencies, giving them a way of doing tone of voice with their clients.
To be honest, when I first started telling people about Voicebox, I thought that copywriters wouldn’t be that interested! I assumed everyone would have their own way of approaching tone of voice. But it quickly became obvious that even among copywriters, tone of voice is often seen as a bit of a ‘dark art’ – in particular, a fair few writers said to me that they had a good intuitive sense, but that it’d be super helpful to have a way of talking about it to clients. So I definitely designed it with that in mind.
Tell me about the Primary voices
So, I think they’re the heart of Voicebox really. I spent a long time looking at hundreds of brands, and pretty quickly it was obvious that there were strong themes in their voices.
So the 11 Primary Voices are the fundamental tones, or styles of writing, or archetypes I suppose (I hate calling them that, it sounds pretentious!). The ‘Straight Talkers’, the ‘Warm Friends’, the ‘Simplifiers’ and the rest.
There’s something just really useful about codifying the range of different tones of voice in this way. It’s very easy for clients to grasp, and yet I think writers just instinctively see how to run with the idea. For instance, to say ‘oh, this brand is primarily a Warm Friend, with a dash of Simplifier’.
Obviously I feel compelled to give the caveat! The British statistician George Box said ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. I think that spirit is important, too. All processes and models need to be treated with a lightness of touch. Voicebox: wrong but useful! Ha!
Why a product? Why not write a book?
Because when I started to pull all the ideas together, the process – it wasn’t book-shaped. The process is more ‘interactive and workshoppy’ than ‘sit and read a book-y’. You know what it’s like, if you just put exercises at the end of a chapter in a book, nobody ever does them.
So I’ve approached it less as a ‘guidebook’ and more as a set of interactive games (you’ve mentioned the tarot cards, right?). It’s a game designed to play with others, with teams. It’s a physical thing – it demands time and space. Also, it’s fun!”
There are lots of parts to the ‘game’. Why’s that?
And every brand and business is different – some want a lot of process and hand-holding, others will just want to dive straight in. Some people will ‘get it’ intuitively, others prefer to have a logical process to go through. So I wanted to make sure it was flexible enough for people to use in the way that suited them best.
Different parts will resonate more or less with different people – but the overall interactive spirit of it is important. It gets groups talking and thinking, which creates better work – and it also creates that thing that businesses love: ‘buy in from the team”.
Did that process of breaking everything down help you create Voicebox?
I’m a bit obsessed with the process of taking apart ‘big skills’ to see how they work. (Earlier this year I taught myself to play the trumpet in three months. Partly because I was involved in this thing called ‘Inexpert’, but also just to see what was happening as I was trying to learn a new, difficult thing. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a terrible trumpet player!)
In fact, Voicebox is sort of connected to me learning to play another instrument – the piano. I took a jazz piano course ten or twelve years ago from an amazing guy called David Sudnow. I’d done grade 3 as a kid I think, so I knew some scales and could read music a bit, but other than that I was total crap. The course came on 3 CDs in the post from America! (It’s now online at www.sudnow.com) The idea that you could teach something as big and complex as jazz piano in a short audio course is nuts really, but it bloody worked. After a year, I could properly play jazz standards from a fakebook.
David’s genius was that he didn’t see it as his job to ‘teach people to play the piano’, he saw it as his job to create the best possible ‘method’ that people could take and use to teach themselves, to find the few simple principles you could use to create rich and complex sounds. I was as in love with the elegance of the course as I was with being able to play the piano!
That’s kind of there in Voicebox I think: from 12 notes of the musical scale, you can create all Western music. From red, blue and green colours in your computer screen you can create millions of different hues. From the 11 Primary Voices, you can create all tones.
In true copywriter form, what’s the biggest benefit that Voicebox offers? How will my life improve?
Ha! Yes, benefits not features! Well, I launched a prototype earlier in the year, so I’ve had a few months of getting feedback from ‘early adopters’ – so rather than me say what I think the benefits are, I’ll tell you what they’ve said:
First, your work will get stronger. The primary voices seem to really help people can experiment, quickly try new things. People are already saying that it’s helping them create more distinctive work, and making it easier for them to use voices that aren’t usually part of their ‘range’, that it’s giving them more confidence in their work, which is great.
Second, it’ll change how you work with your clients. You’ll have instant tone of voice chops, as well as a load of fun workshop stuff to do! Cards to play with, exercises to run, all that. There are a couple of agencies who’ve said it’s really changed the types of conversations they’re having with their clients – that by using the tarot cards and the Primary Voices, they’re quickly into having much more ‘strategic’ conversations about brands and words, rather than feeling stuck with having just the tactical conversations about word counts and what have you.
Third – which is a combination of the first two things really – it’ll help you make more money. Which let’s be honest, if I’m asking you to drop £599, that’s really important. And honestly, almost everybody who’s used Voicebox has said that it’s made a measurable difference to their bottom line. Either they felt it helped them win a big bit of work, or impress a client they’ve been trying to bag for a few months, or else it’s added a new chargeable service to what they offer, or extra steps to a project, or has justified a rate increase. So many people have said it’s paid for itself within the first outing or two.
Find out more: