Shifting Gears with Tone of Voice

When I chat with clients about tone of (written) voice, they often say they aren’t sure how to just flip a switch and shift from a too-formal to a conversational tone. I can empathize. I think that kind of shifting gears is a skill that we can develop with practice.  It wasn’t easy for me, especially under time pressure.

Years ago, in law school, I didn’t know how to complete an assigned paper. Actually, most of the paper was done; the problem was I couldn’t get the beginning right. I had done the extensive research – in libraries, in magazines, in interviews – and written the lengthy subsequent sections, but was clueless how to introduce my arcane subject matter.

The advanced copyright seminar was a small group. We met around a big table with the professor, a recognized expert who visited the university from his office once a week to mentor this little group of copyright nerds.

Where do we begin?

In a nutshell, my problem was that neither the professor nor the other students were likely to know anything about minimal and conceptual art. My work and life had involved me in those genres for years, but they inhabited only a corner of the art world. No one else in our seminar group was writing about the arts at all. Although important cases were in the news about fair use in music sampling, and high-end sculpture, the other students were focusing instead on intellectual property in fields like industrial design or computer software.

They weren’t going to recognize the names of artists, publications, or galleries. They’d never come across a certificate for a work of conceptual art, or the rules around permitted fabrications of a work of minimal art. I could get as minutely involved in my analysis of where and how traditional principles of copyright law did and did not apply to art being made at that moment in these nontraditional modes – but it wouldn’t mean a thing to anyone without context.

photo of long table with three windows in the background and empty chairs around the table

For added pressure, present your ideas here.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I was scheduled to present the gist of my paper to the group, and I still didn’t have the beginning written. How to come up with those words? The struggle was real. I had no time to spare, and was getting absolutely nowhere. Anxiety ruled the days leading up to my 20 minutes in the hot seat.

I couldn’t just launch into the fascinating (to me) details of my topic. It wasn’t until I was at the table in the seminar room with my fellow students that I realized what to do. I needed to give them some dumbed-down context – a high-altitude overview of the landscape. I began with a blunt, brief summary of the corners of the wacky world of contemporary art that I was writing about. My listeners were astonished – and paid close attention to the rest of my spiel, coming up with pertinent, thoughtful questions when I was done. It worked!

My blurt becomes the beginning

Transcribing my recollections of those first spontaneous sentences gave me, almost word for word, the introductory material I needed to ease my future reader into this unfamiliar knowledge. Being on the spot that day in the seminar provided the force required for me to wrench myself out of formal, research-paper mode and into something that actually reached my audience. I hadn’t been able to ease into another mode on my own.

That was a high-adrenaline day for me, and not one I’d choose to repeat. I’m happy to say that shifting from formal to informal mode (and back again, and into many other modes) is less wrenching for me these days. I suspect my time-crunched, high-achieving, younger self required all that rigidity just to get through the schedule-packed days back then, even though it made shifting gears almost impossible.

It’s all practice

So I encourage my clients to stay at it. Like so many things in life, shifting gears from one tone of voice to another gets easier with practice. I find that remembering this is all a lifelong process, with ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and wins and losses, helps keep the creative momentum going.

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Thanks for reading!