Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hitting the Right Note

How do you instill the idea of a magazine's "tone of voice" when the editorial staff has no such concept? This was the question I was chewing over with a very senior magazine publishing boss recently. His problem was to devise training workshops which would get the concept over on a magazine in India where the separate sections were all too separate. The title, a 100% local production, is successful and long established but it is coming under increasing pressure from international titles which have been licensed to local publishers. (See Brands As Content)

Such licensing deals always come with very clear guidelines (or instructions) to ensure that the brand values are retained in every territory, give or take a little tailoring for local sensibilities. It's exactly like a franchise, and as with all franchise operations, the franchisee has to present the corporate face – the "tone of voice" is part and parcel of that and is set up from the start, along with systematic structures to ensure quality control.

But what if the features, news, reviews and fashion departments of a title have entrenched values of their own? How can you get them to come together under a unified approach to writing and presentation?

In the UK tone is often set by the editor, sometimes quite literally so. When Gill Hudson was appointed editor of Eve one of her first actions was to ensure that everyone involved in editorial understood the voice of the magazine. This even extended to a list of forbidden words and phrases.

Some of it is systemic. UK magazines have a strong subediting tradition and this process is crucial to the transmission of a uniform tone, starting with a house style guide to ensure that alternative spellings are coralled, punctuation is either open or closed but not mixed, abbreviations are homogenous and so on.

The most brilliantly unified tone of voice, for my money, was exemplified by Smash Hits in the 1980s. I have no idea whether it reflected the slang and neologisms of its readership or moulded them but there was rarely a false note sounded; the magazine created its own universe and hundreds of thousands of young people wanted to be part of it. At the other end of the scale, The Economist does an exceptionally good job of presenting a highly uniform facade, aided in no small measure by the tradition of un-bylined contributions.

On a practical level, a consistent tone of voice might be assisted by the following exercises:

• Five Words Which Describe Our Magazine

Workshop/brainstorm this with all staff

• Five Words Which Will NEVER Appear in Our Magazine

Workshop/brainstorm this with all staff

Once the positive and negative summaries have been agreed on:

• One section subs or critiques another section's work. This must be carefully managed to avoid the giving and taking of umbrage.
This exercise could be extended so that each section critiques all other section's work.

SYSTEMIC

Agree and then implement a subediting/production system which prevents people from subbing their own work.
Training for above (even a couple of workshops would be a start, along with a recommended textbook, hem, hem).
Institute a post-issue post mortem, to be called and run by the editor, with a very clear remit to increase consistency.

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