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Here’s a true story.

I enjoy using a well-known social media site, and I accept that, in order to benefit from its free worldwide networking opportunities, I will have to put up with seeing adverts. Once, I actually bought something!

Of course, the ads are carefully targeted (and give a scary insight into how I must appear to the outside world). A couple of years ago, one in particular made me sit up and take notice.

It was my birthday. Alongside the greetings from friends, a box popped up.

“48 today?” it chirped, accurately. “Why not take advantage of our reduced-rate funeral plans?”

Yes. Seriously.

I understand, I really do, that selling funerals must be a thankless task. But… on my actual birthday? That wasn’t a coincidence. We can’t blame the computer. It was a human being who decided to use words that specifically linked my special day to my own demise.

What next? Funeral packages being sold alongside the racks of greeting cards, bunting and balloons?

Let’s accept without argument that the under 50s are just the right target audience for end-of-life planning services. Full marks for marketing chutzpah. But as for the content and tone… Back to the classroom, chaps.

To be fair, on the other 364 days of the year, the advert’s second sentence would have been just fine. We can’t really object to the funereal content per se; it’s big business.

It was the birthday content that blew it.

Mixed messages (and dubious tone)

Here, I’m using “the content” to mean what the writing is about, eg, the description of a product; a business plan or report; a travel journal.

The “tone” is what kind of mood is used to convey that content – perhaps excited, respectful or friendly. The tone could (and usually should) vary depending on the audience.

That might seem obvious. But, as we’ve seen, sometimes the content and tone become completely mixed up. (In this case, “Have a seriously gloomy birthday” or “Hooray! Always look on the bright side of death”.)

Maybe an ad that was only twelve words long shouldn’t have needed editing. But in longer copy, checking for consistency of tone becomes even more important. It’s one of the many things that a professional editor can do.

However, it does help to know the tone of voice you want to use in the first place.

The perennially popular Skyhook range, mentioned in my last blog, provides good examples.

You might want a rapid turnover of Value Skyhooks, in which case your written copy could be lively, urgent and fun, with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks.

On the other hand, you might prefer to emphasise the high quality of the Superior Skyhook. Here, you would do better to use a more serious tone, perhaps with more elaborate words like ‘durability’ and ‘versatility’, to appeal to buyers who like to take their time before spending (more of) their money.

Or perhaps you’re writing the Skyhook Installation Manual. No-one can pretend that putting up skyhooks is fun, and it doesn’t matter how shiny they are at this point either. This is the time for clear, simple language to make sure the job is done easily and safely.

In essence, the content is the same in all three scenarios – the description of a product.

But get the tone wrong, and you may have to write a report to your boss explaining why skyhook sales have slumped. (I’d suggest avoiding the exclamation marks in that.)

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t take up the offer of a cheap funeral plan. And maybe I’ve missed the moment – I’m 50 now, so I get adverts for knee supports instead.

Catherine Kendal

Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website