The unmasking of JK Rowling as the author behind a new crime novel raises interesting questions about what happens when you try to move away from your personal or ‘signature’ style.
Professional communicators are usually producing content for an organisation, rather than for readers of fiction. If the end product is a disjointed set of messages all looking like they come from different people, this works against your organisation’s brand. That’s why so many organisations including charities, public sector and non-profits are focusing on brand language to help communicate a coherent and distinctive identity. They do this through choosing certain words and employing a tone of voice that they hope is all their own.
But is it really possible for anyone to cloak their individual identity and completely assimilate a new way of speaking or writing? How successful can ‘tone of voice’ training ever be?
In this brilliant blog article, linguistics expert Patrick Juola has explained how he and colleague Ben Zimmer helped build the case for Rowling’s authorship of The Cuckoo’s Calling, after being approached by the Sunday Times, acting on a tip-off that ‘Robert Galbraith’ was a pseudonym for the Potter creator.
Juola goes to great pains to say that he did not ‘prove’ Rowling’s authorship. Nor does he try to assert that any author’s personal style is as unique as their fingerprint. Even so, he was able to demonstrate that, as one of a number of potential suspects, Rowling came out ahead following tests that used other examples of each author’s work as a benchmark.
We might assume Rowling made some attempt to disguise her own style, if she truly wanted to avoid detection. But Juola and Zimmer’s use of ‘forensic stylometry’ showed that some aspects of Rowling’s voice – from sentence length to the choice of the most unassuming words like ‘the, ‘of’ and ‘by’, remained consistent with her other work, compared to others. This was true even when the subject matter, tone and other creative decisions all seemed to point somewhere else.
So we shouldn’t get too hung up on trying to encourage people to lose every part of their individual style in favour of the corporate approach to language. It’s going to be there in some shape, however hard people try – even Rowling couldn’t completely quieten her own authorial voice (although, to be fair, it took powerful computer software and an academic approach to detect the nuances).
What’s important is helping your team think about their communications from the audience’s perspective, and what kind of organisation members of this audience want, expect or indeed need you to be. If you have that core understanding across everyone who writes or speaks on behalf of your organisation, you won’t go far wrong.