What’s tone of voice all about then?

It’s easy to gloss over tone of voice when starting or running a business. Words are just words, right? Well, what if I told you that the tone of your communications, whether on your website, newsletter or social media, is as important as what your logo looks like, your colour palette, or your customer service?

It’s easy to gloss over tone of voice when starting or running a business. Words are just words, right? Well, what if I told you that the tone of your communications, whether on your website, newsletter or social media, is as important as what your logo looks like, your colour palette, or your customer service?

Check out these examples of brand voice and see if you can recognise where they’re from:

  • Crafted with the same spirit in 2016 as it was in 1866. Get a closer look at the original original. 
  • Light. Years ahead.
  • Every component is designed, developed and produced in-house to the most exacting standards.

Answers on a postcard! But you can see just from these very short extracts that they come from very different brands. The first one is relaxed, taking its time, drawing the reader in. The second much more minimalist and to the point, but creative nonetheless – you know it’s an innovative company. The third more classic, detailed and precise – just like the products.

Your tone of voice needs to reflect what you do, your brand personality, company values and culture. It should talk to your audience in a way they can relate to and crucially it needs to be consistent. Your reader wants to know who they’re dealing with and a lack of consistency will leave them feeling confused, even suspicious, of your brand.

So, where do you begin? Developing your tone of voice can be quite a fun process (well, I think so anyway!) Here’s the basic steps to go through:

Define your values

Your values are the guiding principles behind your business, your reason for existence and the behaviours and outcomes you want to embody in everything you do. It’s difficult to define your tone of voice without knowing these, so if you haven’t already defined them, you need to do this first. Think about the reasons why you started your business, what you’re trying to achieve and how you differ from competitors – this will help you pinpoint what it is that makes you unique. Most companies don’t have more than about three of four, otherwise it can get confusing. Some examples to get those cogs whirring include: Luxurious, exceptional, happiness, optimism, creative, innovative, wholesome, fun – the possibilities are pretty much endless.

Define your personality

Using your values as a basis, translate each one into an aspect of your personality. A way of making this easier is to imagine your company as a person and what your character would be like. So, if one of your values is to be customer-focused, that could translate into being friendly, warm, helpful. Or if you want to offer a luxurious experience to your clients, then that would translate as being classy, sophisticated and well-spoken. At this stage, it can also help to ask yourself questions such as what kind of car would my company be, or what kind of celebrity, TV channel, or newspaper. It’s important to bring it back to human values and character traits, making it easier for your tone of voice to embody these.

It can help to do a bit of research at this stage to check that how you see your brand personality fits with what your customers see and expect. An informal survey with some key clients, as well looking at the feedback and reviews you’ve received and how your employees speak to customers will give you lots of valuable insights and ideas. Your personality and tone of voice must be authentic to the existing culture, target audience and perception of your brand. 

Create a style guide

Now it’s time to start thinking about how your personality translates into the language and style of writing you’re going to use. From this you can start building your tone of voice guidelines, or style guide.

Your guidelines should include different levels of detail:

  • Overall tone: A good starting point can be to think of extremes and define where your tone of voice will sit on a scale between them. For example, is it formal/chatty, detached/warm, professional/wacky, serious/humorous, laid back/lively?
  • How does that translate into language: Next give examples of the linguistic tools that should and shouldn’t be used to express a particular tone. For example, if you want to be friendly and personal, the ‘we’ and ‘you’ pronouns should be specified. If you want to show confidence, then use short sentences. If you want your communications to be more formal, then your grammar rules will need to be more traditional, avoiding contractions such as ‘isn’t’, ‘wasn’t’ etc. Also, don’t forget about formatting and punctuation, which can instantly make a big difference to the feel of your communications.
  • Different channels/moods: Even though you want consistency, your tone of voice will still need to vary slightly depending on what you’re communicating, the channel being used and its purpose. Updating clients on important businesses or legal changes is likely to need a more formal and professional tone than used on Twitter and Facebook, so this is another area to cover off. The same goes for different audiences – you may want to have a different voice for corporate vs. consumer for example.

When creating your style guidelines, provide plenty of examples to demonstrate what good (and bad) look like, showing ‘overdoing it’ vs. ‘underdoing it’, as well as examples of tone of voice in different situations and for different audiences.

Here’s a couple of fantastic examples of tone of voice or style guidelines to give you inspiration:

The Guardian and Observer Style Guide

Writing for Gov.co.uk

Your guidelines give you a framework that any copywriter can work from, ensuring that your brand voice always remain consistent and identifiable to your audiences, performing a similar role to brand guidelines that a designer would work from. It doesn’t mean that anybody can pick up the document and write for your company, you’ll still need to hire a professional who understands the nuances of different types of language and writing. But it means they can hit the ground running more quickly, and plays a massive part in building a strong, unique and memorable brand for your business.

Need some help defining your tone of voice, or creating stand-out copy that fits perfectly with your brand? Then drop me a line at anna@scripsy.co.uk to find out how I can help!