The most beautifully vile case study in the effectiveness of tone of voice has to be that of scam emails.
Scam emails are generally hilariously badly written. (The paypal phishing email below is typical: we have right to inform you today is presumably a mashup of ‘we write to inform you’, and ‘we have the right to…’. And this access unorganised is so weird it borders on poetry. (It'd make a great album title.)
I used to read these with a sense of smugness, thinking Ha! Who’d be fooled by this gibberish? If scammers only took the trouble to get their tone of voice right, they’d get a much better response rate!
More fool me for thinking it was sloppiness on their part. A couple of years ago, Microsoft produced an excellent report called Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria?
(TL;DR: Scammers use outlandish stories and bad writing, to – as Microsoft bluntly put it – ‘repel all but the most gullible.’)
Yep. Scam writing is deliberately bad. Scammers don’t want responses from intelligent people, because they’ll inevitably figure out what’s going on sooner or later. They want to start conversations with the most gullible. And bad writing is the filter. If your bullshit detector doesn’t go off when the writing is this bad, the chances are you’ll fall for the whole thing.
I got to thinking about this whole thing again a couple of days ago because I got this email from HMRC.
Now, dealing with HMRC brings me out in a cold sweat. So after a skim read, I gave up and sent it to my accountant. What did I need to do about it? And she shot straight back: ignore it. It’s a scam.
I was gob-smacked. I think of myself as being pretty savvy, and of having a finely tuned ear for a wonky tone of voice, but this got completely under my radar.
And then it occurred to me: it’s because formal government stuff is now pretty much the only writing that I routinely expect to sound this cold and formal and weird and complicated. It didn’t seem at all weird that they would call me 'applicant', or start their email to me their legal disclaimer, or say things like ‘after the last annual calculation of your fiscal activity…’
I basically expect HMRC to have the same tone of voice as scammers.
A quick chat to my accountant and a poke around on HMRC’s website confirmed that phishing and scamming is a serious problem for them.
Well, HMRC, here’s something you can do about it: sort your damn tone of voice out. Make the gap between how you sound, and how scammers sound as wide as possible.
It won’t happen overnight, but over time, your readers (or, to put that another way ‘pretty much all of us in the UK’) will be able to tell the difference between an email from you and a scam email, because they’ll actually sound and feel different.
And that’s before we even get started on the incalculable positive benefits of everyone actually being able to understand what you’re on about…