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How museums use tone of voice to reveal their hidden personalities

What does your museum sound like? I’m not referring to the chatter of schoolchildren or the ambient hum of dehumidifiers. I mean what do the words you use in marketing, wayfinding and interpretation sound like? More usefully, who do these words sound like?

Every piece of written communication produced by a museum tells visitors something about who the organisation is and what it stands for. The words, punctuation and sentence structures museums employ – and the perspectives they take – have power. They may invite and engage; they more bore or even exclude.

Imagine someone visiting your museum for the first time. Do the external signs sound warm and welcoming? Does the entrance signage invite them in or put them off? Does the wayfinding include terms they understand? Does the interpretation appreciate their lived experience and value their point of view? Does it sound like words pumped out by a faceless institution or does it feel like it was written by a living, breathing individual, complete with personal experience, emotions and flaws?

The way in which information is shared through signage, wayfinding and interpretation, through your website and social media and by staff and volunteers collectively defines your tone of voice.

Tone is less about the information or content you share and more about how that content is presented. It’s the difference between a sign like, ‘Strictly no entry to unauthorised personnel – keep out!’ and one phrased as, ‘There’s nowt for you ‘ere’.

Whether by design or by accident, your tone of voice reveals aspects of your museum’s underlying personality and how the institution feels about both its collections and the visitor experience. Your tone of voice also influences how visitors feel, as this example from Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery demonstrates.

Using tone of voice to engage and entertain

When a quarter of this small museum’s display cases were left temporarily empty and half-painted during a reorganisation, Museum Assistant Amy Judd was asked to install some ‘pardon our progress’ signs. Judd isn’t a fan of standoffish museum communications, so opted to produce something more playful. Here’s one of the descriptions she placed inside an empty cabinet:

Empty Case Royston, 2020 Wood, cloth, air This daring display represents the time between taking objects out and putting new ones back in.

Using a layout and style familiar to museumgoers, Judd had added an unexpected twist. The approach came naturally because it reflects what Judd calls “our general vibe”, which “leans towards having a bit of a laugh and enjoying our work”. Her aim was simply to be funny and to bring a smile to the face of visitors when they were confronted by a batch of empty cases. It’s something the Museum has done before, when it once placed a modern domestic iron beside a sign saying: ‘Temporary exhibition: The Iron Age’.

Humour can often miss the mark, but Judd’s hastily produced signs engaged and entertained visitors. Curator Madeline Odent says, “Most people glance at [the signs], and then double-take and look a bit closer before laughing or calling their friends over”. These positive reactions are probably down to the fact that Judd and Odent know their visitors and their museum well. If people weren’t able to recognise the tone as something more often used in a different museum context, the joke would fall flat. If people expected the Museum to take a serious and formal approach, they’d be more shocked or outraged.

The tone, therefore, echoed what regular visitors expect from the Museum, reinforcing it as a place to have fun, even if many of its exhibits were absent. Writing in this way felt intuitive and instinctive to Judd because, to a large extent, it was an expression of her own personality. In other circumstances, institutions may craft a tone of voice that expresses the views and values of a person conjured from their imagination.

Using tone of voice to inform and provoke

During the development of ‘Underwater Beauty’ the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago imagined an ideal companion who would communicate with visitors as they explored the exhibit. The team landed on the idea of a ‘nature poet’, someone who appreciates the natural world (so takes time to look at things and learn about them), cares about words (so chooses and arranges them well) and values clarity. The result? Interpretation like this introductory sign, which almost sings itself off the wall:

…and this text beside a tank of jellyfish, whose rhythmic tone matches that of the specimens it interprets:

Both these pieces of interpretation use language that helps people visualise and act out how creatures behave underwater. They also provoke visitors to consider what life might be like for them if they lived in an underwater world.

The Royston and Shedd examples show how tone can entertain and inform visitors who have already arrived, but tone of voice can also inspire people to visit in the first place, as the following example from London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) shows.

Using tone of voice to inspire museum visits

When branding agency SomeOne developed a year-long marketing campaign for NHM it was asked to revitalise the Museum’s tone. SomeOne chose to put items from the collection centre stage, bringing them to life with clever copy that imbued each specimen with personality.

Physical and social media advertisements featured snappy, conversational lines like, ‘Whale hellooo there’ (as if spoken by the giant blue whale in the Museum’s entrance hall), ‘Pleased to eat you’ (dribbling from the mouth of a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex) and ‘Blink and you’ll miss it’ (by a wide-eyed bush baby on display in a temporary exhibition). Thanks, also, to some bold graphics, the overall tone felt closer to social media memes than more traditional museum advertising.

SomeOne describes the campaign as “contemporary, fun, engaging, emotional and audience led”. This award-winning approach made it the most successful campaign in the Museum’s history, inspiring more people to visit than ever before. It’s no wonder the agency was asked to design another campaign the following year.

Creative copywriting like this can certainly drive potential visitors to a museum, but what if they encounter a different tone of voice when they arrive? This begs the question of whether museums ought to stick to one tone of voice or whether they may use many.

Should museums use more than one tone of voice?

Organisations that use a consistent tone of voice across all their communications build a strong, consistent, recognisable brand. If they’ve chosen the tone well, they’ll build relationships with their intended audiences and, more importantly, build trust with them. That’s because people trust individuals or organisations they know and who present themselves in reliable, consistent ways.

Having said that, it can make sense to vary your tone of voice depending on the type of communication you’re using – just as you might alter your tone to match different situations when you speak with someone face to face. An alternative way of thinking about this, is that you should vary your tone of voice depending on the needs of your visitors or users.

In their excellent book ‘Nicely Said’, writers Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee suggest mapping written content against what your readers are doing and feeling at the time. “To connect with people and show you care,” the pair say, “adapt your style to fit their needs at the very moment they’re reading your content”.

A simple way to do this is to pose three questions: What are they trying to do? How are they feeling? How should we respond? So, for instance, when people encounter a message about an error on a website, a broken exhibit or a prohibited area you might identify:

·       What are they trying to do? Access something we can’t offer them

·       How are they feeling? Confused, annoyed, disappointed

·       How should we respond? Gentle, calm, informative

Conversely, when someone has taken the time to click through on to a blog post on your website you might identify:

·       What are they trying to do? Be stimulated, learn something, fill up time

·       How are they feeling? Interested, curious, attentive

·       How should we respond? Casual, friendly, perhaps provocative

You might also choose to vary your tone of voice depending on what you want to reveal about your own personality. For instance, incorporating different tones of voice within exhibition interpretation allows you to reveal different perspectives on the content, as shown in these examples from the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London.

Using tone of voice to share different perspectives

IWM’s permanent exhibition ‘Turning Points’ draws out connections between objects, stories and lives in the run up to and during the Second World War. For each cluster of objects, an interpretative panel shares three distinct descriptions, each written in a different tone. One presents the curator’s perspective, one the insight of a historian and one the view of a designer. Combined, they allow the Museum to explore the wider context and society at the time and how the lives of ordinary people were affected by war.

Elsewhere in the Museum, the First World War galleries make extensive use of contemporary quotes, which demonstrate how war impacted different individuals, while also revealing how people at the time communicated the horrors they experienced.

These quotes include an Austrian general describing war as ‘a dastardly slaughter’,  a woman watching a 1916 film about the Battle of the Somme crying out in a cinema, ‘Oh God, they’re dead’ and a solider in the trenches writing that he hasn’t had, ‘a real wash for eleven days, or a bath for fifty-five’.

Personal perspectives like this can, as I have written before, reframe visitor’s perceptions of an object or issue. The tone in which the perspectives are shared may also resonate with visitors more strongly than formal museum text might.

Should a tone of voice be neutral?

Incorporating quotes from beyond the museum, as IWM and many other institutions do, can be an effective way to share diverse perspectives on an issue. However, there’s a danger that this approach sometimes allows museums to shy away from developing a distinct tone of voice themselves.

Some organisations find defining their tone of voice challenging because, at its core, an engaging tone of voice requires a stance: an expression of what you stand for and what you care about.

Outside the museum sector, brands that have a clear point of view create the most interesting and memorable copy for customers, while writers with a strong viewpoint deliver more engaging reads than those who struggle to remain impartial and end up mired in blandness.

The poet Sharon Olds describes a recognisable voice as the result of, “specific experience filtered through a specific sieve”. In this vein, a museum’s voice is shaped by the institution’s past but also by how – or even if – it chooses to select and interpret that past. Museums that claim to be neutral may not worry too much about tone of voice because they assume it is also neutral. Yet what comes naturally to a museum may, for some visitors, feel exclusionary.

All this means that developing and delivering a tone of voice isn’t simply about choosing and using words, or even about deciding which “polished slice of yourself” (as journalist Michelle Nijhuis phrases it) to present to the public. It’s about identifying the audiences you want to engage with, discovering how they perceive you, learning how they communicate and mirroring their tone in order to build rapport with them – just as you might do in person when trying to build a friendship or professional relationship with someone new.

With this in mind perhaps a more important question than the one I posed at the start of this article would be, ‘What does your museum sound like to your visitors?’ or even ‘What does your museum sound like to visitors who are yet to discover you?’ If it sounds dull, distant or exclusive, it’s time to develop and use a new tone of voice.

About the author – Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer, trainer and consultant who collaborates with museums to find and share stories in an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She shares her passion for audience-focused approaches to content development with students at City University, London and University of the Arts London.

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