Tenor, Tone and Register

As an English teacher one of my favorite topics to cover was gender in the media. It’s fun to study adverts from decades-gone-by because of the messages they convey, and how they clash with modern sensibilities.

They reflect, to an extent*, the values of the societies in which they were conceived and provide great talking points for classes to discuss language, attitudes and how society changes over time.

*To an extent, because it’s hard to measure the influence of male-dominated advertising agencies and boardrooms. How far did those Fairy ads reflect cultural ideals and how much did they simply perpetuate stereotypes? Were women everywhere transfixed by the screen as they unconsciously rubbed their hands , imagining a world in which faces and palms were indistinguishable by touch alone? Or were there perhaps a few arched eyebrows as items close-at-hand were hurled at the TV?

For decades, Fairy ran hard on the idea of housewives teaching their daughters to wash dishes, and receiving softer hands for the privilege (lucky ducks), until relatively recently. Presumably while the ladies were at home washing up, their men were engaged in more suitably masculine activities like ushering in nuclear Armageddon, or the odd spot of gardening.

By the 2015 version they've clearly changed their tone and are making the effort to appeal to a wider demographic, though they may have missed their mark somewhat (not least because mum is now a peripheral figure, relegated to doing dishes in the background while Dad reads the paper).

Given that most small boys have the attention span of a duck, that bottle would have been squeezed gleefully into the sink around 30 seconds after the first scene, and by the time the advert ended weeks later the long-since discarded Spaceship would likely have been providing a home for woodlice at the end of the garden, the boy presumably having graduated to jet powered skateboards and leaf-blower volcanoes.

Adverts like those above are great for introducing the concept of tenor - or the relationship between the producer and audience of a given text (where a text is any given media item, whether written, audio, visual or a combination). Tenor is closely related to tone, i.e. the emotional content of a text, and register, or type of language used to appeal to an audience. Together, they form the basis for how you decide to speak to your audience - whether that’s a casual chat with a group of friends, a training session for professional colleagues or a marketing email to existing/potential customers.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Oxfam America Homepage

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Oxfam instantly create a relationship of shared concern with the reader - they juxtapose Puerto Rico’s ongoing ‘RECOVERY’ with the potential danger of the upcoming ‘2018 hurricane season’.

That main idea of recovery is fronted before they introduce a note of anxiety and humanity by presenting a sympathetic image of local Puerto Ricans (’watching the skies anxiously’), provide reassurance through their own dedication and the efforts of communities, then address the reader directly by declaring that ‘you can help’.

The tone is serious but constructive and optimistic (’build back better’) which is necessary to elicit donations - sadly, we’re much less likely to hand over money to a situation perceived to be hopeless, whether or not we may still positively impact people by doing so. The register is generally formal (’remains dedicated’, ‘working with communities’) with a touch of colloquialism - everyday language - and alliteration (’build back better’) to let us know Oxfam is a human organization on our wavelength, concerned with normal, everyday people.

Another way of looking at this text and the tenor of shared concern is through the lens of perspective. We are guided line by line to consider first the country (’PUERTO RICO RECOVERY’), then its people (’Puerto Ricans are watching the skies anxiously…’), followed by Oxfam as a benevolent force (’Oxfam remains dedicated…’) and finally ourselves (’You can help’), compelling us to act by inspiring empathy, faith in Oxfam and a sense of empowerment in ourselves.

Lagunitas Brewing Company Homepage

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Lagunitas Brewing Company probably appeals to many of the same people as Oxfam, but obviously the context and method of eliciting money are different.

Accordingly, they’ve tried to create a familiar and friendly relationship through the use of a whimsical, lightly humorous and nostalgic tone. They draw us in with the idea of ‘acceptance’ being ‘the first step’, an irreverent nod to addiction, subverted here to suggest inclusivity. Then we are promised ‘a complimentary blanket and bowl of soup’, playing on the nostalgia of home comforts and fond memories.

We are treated to tongue in cheek humanism (‘You are good, you are beautiful, you are a sentient being.’) complemented by a fun and silly punchline (’You may or may not have lint in your navel.’). Finally we are left with a National Lampoon quote (‘Therefore make your peace with your God…’) which leaves us in no doubt that we’re entering an environment where people don’t take life, and each other, too seriously.

Interestingly, the register here is not particularly colloquial. Words like ‘arduous’, ‘mindful compassion’ and ‘sentient being’ - more reminiscent of high-minded prose than bar talk - litter the paragraphs, followed up with a pop culture reference (’Cosmic Muffin or Hairy Thunderer’) that not everybody entering their site will latch onto. But that doesn’t really matter, because the point is to create a particular tone and mood. It’s friendly, it’s daft, it evokes warm memories and relaxation.

The tenor you create through the tone and register you decide to use is a vital part of your language environment - e.g. your branding, existing literature and elements of design. Continuity is important, but so too is staying fresh and relevant to your audience.

So be consistent, but also make sure your audience are who you think they are, and hold attitudes in line with your approach. Without re-branding entirely, a directional-shift in your language, done subtly and over time, may help to burnish your reputation and boost your organization.