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Tone of Voice

Welcome to Oakfield's tone of voice guide

This is a (fairly) brief overview of how we write. It’s for everyone, and it applies to all the writing we do publicly.

We believe in everything we’ve said, so if you see us falling short then please let us know.

Every word matters  

The words we put on screen and paper are one of the most important ways we have of showing people what we stand for. Not just our website, but all our policies (we're working on amending older ones), every chat with us, and how we communicate with each other on the inside. Every word adds up to people’s perception of who we are.

And if the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or educational stuff. Those are the moments of truth when people will decide if we’re really transparent, and if we really have their best interests at heart.

So every word matters. Every word is a chance for us to make a connection with someone, go beyond what they’d expect from a school and brighten their day. 

This isn’t a set of rules 

We believe that good writing is empathetic. Thinking carefully about the people you’re writing to, and understanding how they feel and what they need from us, shouldn’t feel like a tick-box exercise – it should be something you put thought into every time. 

Plus, we don’t want staff to write like a bunch of robots or drones, Oakfield writing should have a family feel, like you can tell it’s come from people with the same values, but it shouldn’t feel like one person. Because it’s not, and that’s a bit weird.

  • We use the language our audience uses, though we may write for purposes, we believe in writing it once and making technical, educational stuff as clear as we can.
  • We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to our school community.
  • We’re transparent about what we’re doing and why, and we don’t hide behind ambiguity. We know our strengths, areas for development and we share these openly.
  • We’re open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone.

Brief history of 'professional' English

The Romans arrived in Britain a couple of thousand years ago, and brought Latin with them. Local tribal leaders had to learn Latin, or else. 

So they did, and Latin became the language of religion and administration — which is why the words ‘religion’ and ‘administration’ come from Latin.

Even after the Romans left, that Latin stuck around. The top of society used it as a way to separate themselves from the common folk who couldn’t understand it. It was a way of saying: ‘We know something you don’t.’

Latin seeped into the foundations of legal writing (there’s still a lot of it there today). And legal writing became the basis of all business writing, because writing was time-consuming and difficult at first, and you only bothered to write something down if it was important — like a contract.

So what we traditionally think of as professional language is essentially words that have a Latin root. Words we’d almost never say out loud, but which we write when we’re trying to sound business-like.

And what we’re unconsciously doing is perpetuating that idea that ‘we know something you don’t’. But rather than making us sound smarter or more ‘professional’, it makes us sound cold and distant.

Serious isn't the same as formal

Sometimes we worry that writing clearly and simply can mean we lose authority, especially when we’re dealing with serious topics. That’s largely because of how business English has developed, and it’s just what we’re used to. When companies get serious, their language gets formal. It’s how you know this is A Big Deal.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Being serious isn’t the same as being formal. That’s the crucial difference between content (what we say) and tone (how we say it).

In 2010, US attorney Sean Flammer ran an experiment. He asked 800 circuit court judges to side with either a traditional ‘legalese’ argument, or one in what he called ‘plain English’.

The judges overwhelmingly preferred the plain English version (66% to 34%), and that preference held no matter their age or background. Here’s an interesting extract from Flammer’s findings:

The results indicate that the participants found the Legalese passage to be less persuasive than the Plain English version. The respondents also believed the Plain English author was more believable, better educated, and worked for a prestigious law firm.

So it’s not just about credibility. Explaining yourself clearly makes you look smart, too!


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