POV, Tone, Voice, and Style

We unnecessarily confuse point of view (POV), tone, voice, and style. Let's fix that now.

This is an excellent example of tone/voice/style and POV: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-problem-with-music

This is an excellent example of POV: https://davidmaister.com/articles/the-problem-of-standards/

Let's look at some excerpts together. First, the Steve Albini Baffler piece, which has both vivid, strong tone/voice/style and a clearly identifiable point of view. This excerpt is from the very beginning of Albini's opinion piece:

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.

Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says, “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim it again, please. Backstroke.”

And he does, of course.

That is one of the most blisteringly arresting introductory sections in a piece of writing. Like, ever. Is there any question what Steve Albini thinks about the business practices of major labels? No, there is no question. That's point of view. Is there any question how Steve Albini feels about major labels? No; no question. That's his tone/voice/style. Brash. Direct. Unafraid to offend. Unafraid to use some strong imagery in his communication.

In fact, unafraid is the wrong word to use there. Relishing using the strong, gross imagery is more like it. It's the verbal equivalent of this:

Incidentally, if anyone ever reviews your writing and says "there's a lot of throat-clearing going on with this piece", then think what it would look like if your piece began with the same level of instant intensity this Albini piece does and then remove everything that delays getting to your point and add anything you'd like to make your point in vivid fashion.

Now the David Maister piece, which is a transcription of a talk:

Technology is potentially wonderful, but professional firms will never capture its benefits because there is no point in giving advanced tools to a group of people who do not have the discipline to do the basics.

If you really want to get the commercial benefits of any strategy, you must put in a system that forces you to execute that strategy. The tragedy is that they will not accept accountability for standards. Giving them technology is like giving a machine gun to a baby. You first teach the baby that there are certain standards to live by, and only then can you give them the advanced tools.

Is there any question what David Maister thinks of the level of discipline present in the world of professional services? No, there is not. All you had to do was read the first sentence of this excerpt, which comes from the very beginning of his talk, so it's literally the first thing he says to his audience who were at the Legal Solutions Conference, The Hague, Netherlands, September 11, 2001. Maister is saying, in a slightly nicer way, "you people do not have the discipline to do the basics of your job."

Again, there is no question what he thinks, and in his talk he goes on to explain why he sees things this way. His argument, despite relying partially on data that is very likely corrupted by the Halo Effect [^1], is simple and straightforward:

  • This is what standards are.
  • Hypocrisy is claiming to live by standards but not actually living by them.
  • Y'all are mostly hypocrites.
  • I live by standards. I'm not perfect, but it's not that hard to live by standards.
  • You could too, if you really wanted to.

And there are lots of interesting examples sprinkled throughout.

I've never found a recorded version of this talk, so I think all we have to go on here is the written (and probably lightly edited) transcript. It has much less of that tone/voice/style thing. It's hard to tell how David Maister feels about this lack of standards in the world of professional services. Is he angry? Weary and resigned but hoping to recruit a few fellow travelers for a program of improvement? Trying to start a revolution? Dropping a bomb before he quits the biz for good? Again, it's hard to tell because the text of this talk is all POV and much less tone/voice/style.

And that's my point. You can have a distinctive, memorable, impactful POV without having a finely-developed tone/voice/style.

Anne Janzer has published this valiant attempt to define tone, voice, and style: https://annejanzer.com/talk-tone-style-voice-writing/. I think her piece is good, but also I think it doesn't matter very much to us. I can't imagine any of my clients benefiting from trying to apply the distinctions she makes between tone, voice, and style to their own writing. And if a piece of writing needed to be more arresting to readers, I would just say "add more visual or intense examples and emotion to the writing and cut out the throat-clearing" (and I'd help them do it). It wouldn't matter to the author or reader whether what they added was actually more tone, voice, or style.

We need point of view. We might need to work on our point of view -- put some effort into clarifying and amplifying it.

I don't think we need to put similar effort into tone/voice/style. Our clients aren't buying that; they're buying expertise that enables a solution, and our clarified and amplified POV help make our expertise distinctive and memorable. Yes, tone/voice/style can do that too. Everyone who has heard Gary Vaynerchuk cuss a lot remembers that.

But what exactly is that dude's point of view, again?


[^1]: Anytime you find yourself saying "X is great today. What caused that?" and your investigation of why involves gathering memory-based data from people who know X is great today and benefited from X or were involved in making X what it is today, the your investigation can be shaded or spoiled by Halo Effects.