Your voice is not a static thing. It can (and probably should) change over time. We often say that an organizational voice should be like a river: steady but adaptable.
Defining every aspect of your voice – your vocabulary, tone, subject matter, grammar, etc – is a fool’s errand. Such exercises produce over-long documents that no one will read or understand. What’s more, they make it difficult to accomodate new forms of communication.
We encourage anyone trying to define an organization’s voice to create a brief set of broad guidelines that explain the organization’s goals and how the organization wants to be perceived.
These kind of guidelines are just that: guidelines. They’re not rules, but are something like an elastic border that keeps your voice in the same general area. Guidelines help writers and editors work within the same space, but also allow people to push against them and explore new things without fear of making a “mistake.” Over time, you and your audience will become more familiar with how you sound, and you’ll know how to engage one another more comfortably.
A great way to visualize an “elastic border” is to imagine a river. A river follows a consistent path, but it changes over time in response to any number of factors – banks erode, riverbeds fill with silt, dams are built, rainfall increases, etc. Some of these changes can be catastrophic, but most are imperceptible – the river continues, largely along the same course, still reliable.
Your organization’s voice should be like a river. Extending the metaphor, social media is something like increased rainfall that causes a river to swell and expand beyond its normal banks. The ways to communicate have multiplied, and the volume of communication has increased. This might explain why it’s common to hear people use “flooding” to describe social media.
The directness and frequency of communication required by social media is pushing organizations to speak in new ways that they, and their audience, might find uncomfortable. We see this all the time.
On Monday, NPR used its Tumblr to showcase readers’ responses to some research about the different words people use for soda (pop, Coke, etc) on Twitter throughout the country. It got a little silly. I doubt many people expect NPR to be silly. Some people liked it. Some people did not. That’s ok. NPR is learning, along with its audience, how to adjust its voice.
Personally, I think NPR’s Tumblr writers risk confusing the genre for the medium. Tumblr is a medium for direct, very quick communication. Its culture facilitates a kind of communication that can be particularly “Tumblry” and is relatively very new to an organization like NPR. But NPR doesn’t have to become completely Tumblry to use Tumblr. Instead, NPR should bring its own styles and sensibilities to Tumblr, and make Tumblr a bit more NPRy.
In the end, NPR will communicate a little differently, and Tumblr will have gained a unique and valuable voice. And both will continue on, steady, both improving one another.Image from Harold Fisk’s gorgeous map of the Mississippi River.
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