Is Your Newsletter Tone Deaf?

My dog Abbie, a six-year-old Lab/Golden mix, has developed a curious habit in middle age: Several times each day she picks up her ball (an old, deflated, yellow tetherball) and slowly carries it around the entire perimeter of the house. Clockwise.

We have no idea why she does this. In fact, after many months, the only “benefit” I’ve been able to point to is a well-worn path over the lawn, suggesting to our neighbors that we’re laying out plans for a future moat.

The truth is, after living with Abbie for several years now, I haven’t found much practical use for her at all. Granted, she ranks above teenagers on this scale (at least she looks at me when I talk to her), but between brushing her, feeding her, cleaning up after her and taking her to the vet, it’s a lot of work.

But you know what? I love having her in our house. She’s a constant, cuddly, petable reminder that practical value is only part of what makes life worth living.

Which brings me to E-Newsletters. Specifically, E-Newsletter voice and tone.

In the development and writing of an E-Newsletter, many people – savvy e-mail marketers among them – are quick to put voice and tone in the afterthought bucket: “Our readers are smart, busy people who work at big companies. We need to demonstrate our knowledge; that other stuff doesn’t really matter.”

I’m not the type of person who uses this kind of language, but if I were, I’d say that’s total bullshit.

But I’m not, so let’s just say I disagree.

Here’s the thing. Your readers, whether they’re smart or not, whether they’re busy or not, whether they work for big companies or not, tend to be human beings. And human beings, despite what your economist brother-in-law might tell you, are not rational decision-makers.

We buy cars, clothes, coffee, computers (and many other items which don’t even begin with the letter “c”) based on the way it feels to buy them and own them – not because we’ve performed an objective analysis of how they compare to other available options. We do it because it just feels right.

When it comes to hiring a professional service provider (i.e. you and me), the decision of who to go with is necessarily even more subjective.

Unlike purchasing a pair of sneakers, when considering the future services of an expert in a field they know little about, it’s nearly impossible for a potential client to line up one provider against the other and make an objective decision. Even if you are better in some material way, the people doing the choosing can’t tell.

Back to your newsletter. Providing useful information each time you publish is essential… and a thousand times better than simply promoting yourself. But it’s not enough. You need to reduce the risk that prospective clients feel when making a decision. You need to help them trust you if they’re going to hire you.

That’s where voice and tone comes in. What prevents your newsletter readers from picking up the phone and calling you is not the quality of your information, or the beauty of your design, or the prominence of your logo. It’s the human connection.

And so with that in mind, I offer some suggestions for connecting with humans:

  1. Write in the first person. Say “I” not “we.” Say “you” not “all of you.” Speak directly to your readers whenever you can.
  1. Use conversational phrases. Things like, “But you know what?” (paragraph four) and “Here’s the thing” (paragraph nine), will help your writing sound more real.
  1. Use non-business words. “Curious,” “cuddly,” “love” and certainly “bullshit,” are not common in business writing. And yet curiously, they’re words we all use every day. You don’t want to go out of your way to offend people, but you need to take the gloves off enough that they can see who’s back there behind your tie and shiny web site.
  1. Take your mask off. I don’t expect my clients to be as comfortable as I am in sharing the details of their personal lives in the company newsletter… but I do all I can to pull them in this direction. I do it because I’ve discovered, quite by accident, that the more people know about you, the easier it is for them to like and trust you — two necessary steps on the road to hiring you.

Here’s the bottom line. Pet owners (and parents) are painfully aware of the impractical value of having these creatures in the house. But we do it anyway, because it just feels good. Your readers may be serious businesspeople, but they’re people first. And they’ll walk right by if you don’t use voice and tone to engage them at a human level.

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