Putting real life into 'skills for life'.
Hello hello 👋
All the tones of voice featured in Tone Knob so far have been box-fresh: voices created from scratch for new brands. It’s easier to get a clear and consistent voice when you start with a blank sheet. Much harder if you’ve been writing in a particular way for donkey’s years, and need to jolt yourselves out of it. This time, a terrific example of an organisation doing just that: the Scouts.
🏕 Gimme some background
So, the Scouts: started a century ago with Robert Baden Powell’s book Scouting for Boys as a way to educate boys in the ways of woodcraft, self-reliance and British Empire-y short-trousered-self-discipline – and is now the largest volunteer network for young people in the world.
The Scouts has successfully reinvented itself a number of times over the years – and over the last decade or so in the UK they’ve thrived: their contemporary take on outdoorsy adventuring and community-minded helpfulness attracts nearly half a million boys and girls to huts and halls every week. Bear Grylls is their hugely popular Chief Scout. These days, they’re all about ‘skills for life’.
🎨 Smart new visuals. But same-same tone.
In fact, the Scouts had been thriving so successfully they needed to attract more volunteers. A great rebrand in 2018 helped them look ‘cool again’ – but their language was still stuck1. In particular, all that ‘skills for life’-speak – ‘leadership’, ‘resilience’, ‘motivation’, ‘communication’ – was coming across as off-puttingly worthy CV-blather.
Long story short: they fixed it. Out with the weird LinkedIn HR language, and in with how young people actually talk, grounded in real things and real places, ushering in a fresher voice and capturing a much truer Scouts vibe.
So let’s compare and contrast. Here’s how they used to talk about what they do. (Notice that it’s not bad: it’s clear, and ticks many of the boxes of ‘good technique’. Many organisations would be happy with this. But it’s not right for the Scouts’ audience.):
And here’s how they cut the lofty language, and made it real-er:
Do-er. Give it a go-er. Ignore the butterflies. All nicely real ways of talking about those abstract skills for life. Notice how it’s written from the perspective of a Scout. It’s packed with action (count those verbs!) And it has just the right amount of childish simplicity to it. Read it out loud. There’s a really nice chunkiness that comes from all the short words. It’s enthusiastic, but it’s not over-the-top.
It’s so packed with goodness, that they can use snippets of it elsewhere:
Not adaptability, but thinking on your feet. And I like how it’s tarmac, not a campsite, too. Here’s resilience and flexibility:
They carry on the same ‘make it real’ approach to talking about volunteering. In fact, even when talking about the volunteers you don’t see:
Now, one of the slight challenges of having Bear Grylls as your Chief Scout is that if you’re thinking about volunteering, he does set something of a daunting standard. (‘I’ve not scaled Everest, gone wild camping with Barack Obama, or survived in a desert by drinking my own urine. Perhaps I’m not the right person to help out on Thursday evenings?’) The Scouts see you:
In their down-to-earth way, what volunteering is really about is this:
(I love the line ‘every now and again that may well mean using a compass, but more often than not it’s about confidence…’) Or, even more directly:
What’s interesting to me as a writer is that even though we’ve only looked at a handful of short examples, I totally get this voice. The blend of ‘humble do-er’ plus real-way-of-talking-about-trying-hard, plus general pride and energy gives you loads to run with.
Often, guidelines that contain mainly headlines leave you impressed by their cleverness, but baffled about how you might apply that to day-to-day comms. Not these.
And while we’re talking about guidelines: the Scouts’ guidelines are written for volunteers, to help them adapt, personalise and write their own versions of the posters, social posts, and emails to parents.
I particularly like how they help people notice the kinds of ‘real life’ moments that feel particularly Scout-y. ‘Saturn in the car park’. So nice. (And the sort of detail it’s almost impossible to simply invent.)
I spoke to Chris James, the Scouts Brand and Ambassador manager, and what’s clear is that what started as a project mainly around the ‘skills for life’ language has changed much more than that: ‘When you’re in a hall or a room for a Scout meeting, it’s bubbling over with warmth, kindness, fun and energy – yet often that was missing from the way we communicated. Our language was full of phrases like ‘ensure’, ‘facilitate’, ‘as soon as practicable’ and ‘subject to confirmation’. The tone of voice has helped us be truer to what the Scouts is really like. It’s helped free us.’
That’s often how you know a tone of voice project like this has hit the spot, isn’t it: not that people feel like they have a ‘useful formula’ to implement, but that when they’re writing, they suddenly feel free.
🙌 Three things to love and learn from
📝 Focus on your most visible format
One of the things I love about the Scouts work is that it’s a tone of voice built largely out of posters. (Oddly radical in a digital age). Realistically, if you’re a Scout or volunteer, you’re not gonna be spending much time on the website – but you will see those posters week in and week out. Sometimes the words that most shape your voice aren’t the ‘foundational texts’ (about us pages etc) but more peripheral things. What might yours be?
📚 Really think about who your guidelines are for
The Scouts wrote their guidelines not for professional copywriters or ‘head office folk’, but for their volunteers. It’s easy to think of guidelines as being sort of ‘official records of strategy’. They’re not. They’re practical handbooks for real people doing the day-to-day writing.
🤦♀️ Look out for the obvious. (‘Be more Bear’.)
Chris told me that it was only after they’d finished the tone of voice work that they realised partly what they’d done was ‘captured Bear Grylls’s voice – that mix of humility and energy.’ Bear has been Chief Scout since 2009. Funny that it took so long to uncork the potential of being more Bear. Is there an obvious influence or source of inspiration for your voice that’s hiding in plain sight?
🙌 The Scouts worked closely with brand and language agency We All Need Words on their tone of voice and volunteer guide.
This happens so often with rebrands, doesn’t it – the new visuals look boss, but the words get forgotten. And as soon as people start using the sexy new look and feel, it leaves the words nowhere to hide, and now everything sounds worse.