See if you can get through the next four sentences without a touch of discomfort:
“We strive to adhere to the latest industry standards for each piece of expert content it produces for its clients. We’re always chuffed to chat about concocting content that will go the whole nine yards. From multilingual to complex industry copy, we are ideally equipped to meet your requirements. Because if content is king, you could say we’re its white horse – delivering the goods at the right time, and always in style.”
What you’ve just witnessed is different tones of voice overlapping in the same space.
Without a consistent tone of voice, not only is this copy cringe-worthy, it’s almost completely ineffective. In this article, we’ll cover how you can define and craft a tone of voice for your brand to avoid the same fate.
Tone of voice is, quite simply, how you say something. In real-life, we give peoples’ tones of voice descriptions like ‘condescending’, ‘sarcastic’, or ‘serious’ and our perception of their tone sets the stall for our relationship with them.
This principle transfers to the business world, but instead of saying words aloud, you’re writing them down. All of your written communication – from your website and emails to your packaging and social media messages – should reflect it.
No brand is toneless, though some may mesh several tones and confuse everyone (as we saw above). Because your tone can define how your business is viewed by consumers, it’s critical to develop a consistent one.
It’s cliche, but people hate change.
Any ripple in our expectations causes discomfort, even if it’s subconscious. This affects how customers engage with your brand.
You’d want all of your stationery, email signatures, advertisements, company kit and website pages to show the correct logo and company name. You also want your copy to appear as if it’s come from one source.
Giving your brand this uniform ‘voice’ conveys trustworthiness, honesty and stability – traits that we, as humans, adore.
Just as you may define a certain friend as ‘funny’, a colleague as ‘enthusiastic’, or your boss as ‘frank’, your customers will see your brand’s tone of voice as an expression of you.
Innocent Drinks, for example, has long been making waves for their casual, conversational tone… just check out this product description:
Likewise, Dollar Shave Club infuses a healthy dose of humour into an otherwise bland product (men’s razors) to differentiate themselves from competitors.
For customers, not only does this build trust, it gives them something to identify with. It proves you’re not just the products you sell, you’re a company with values that line up with theirs.
Think of it in reverse order: if they buy into your personality, they’re more likely to buy into your ideas and eventually your products.
Pull back the layers of your business and defining a tone of voice takes three relatively simple steps.
Much like creating a mission statement, your tone of voice spawns directly from your company values.
First, you need to identify what those are. A good starting point is to pretend your business is a person you’re taking to a dinner party. Ask yourself what they would be like. Then, ask your team what they would be like.
From here, your values will start to take shape. While it sounds bizarre, human traits communicated as company values are what will set you apart – try to define three key ones.
Be careful not to pick general terms like ‘intelligent’ for your IT company, as intelligence is standard across every IT company. Focus on the traits that make you different.
More importantly, don’t fake it ’til you make it. If your company is not humorous, forcing it to sound so will be… well, forced. Consumers can see through try-too-hard copy and, in the age of social media, won’t think twice about calling you out on it.
Your brand does not have to be relaxed like Innocent or funny like Dollar Shave Club to be heard and appreciated. Trying to copy what works for another brand leaves your own identity hollow, and makes producing every piece of content harder for you.
Instead, talk – with and listen to – your colleagues and even your customers about the company. The words you use and how you converse is already shaping your tone of voice, you just need to be able to put that in writing.
After you’ve defined your three key values, you need to make some rules about how they will be communicated in writing.
Use a spectrum to get an idea of where you want to sit. From humorous to serious, formal to casual, or inspirational to straightforward, this will clue your copywriters and content creators in on where their pieces should rest.
Keep in mind who you will be writing for. If it’s other businesses, you may want a professional-yet-approachable tone, whereas if you’re customer-facing you may desire a fun-and-exciting voice.
Then, decide on your actual vocabulary.
Complexity: Consider if terms like ‘altruistic’ and ‘amicable’ or simpler vocabulary would suit your audience’s reading level.
Humour: If you’re treading the fine line of a humorous style, make sure it comes across as such to people outside the company.
No-go terms: What will your brand absolutely not say? For instance, travel companies might avoid cliches like ‘crystal clear waters’ or ‘something for everyone’.
Colloquialisms and technical jargon: Defining something as cheap-as-chips might work for some, while it may be too casual for others. The same goes for confusing industry terminology (in general, unnecessary terms are better left out).
Nitty gritty grammar: More formal writing may stray away from starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’. Meanwhile, relaxed styles may want to avoid stuffy terms like ‘whom’ and ‘amongst.’ Conjunctions are another consideration: does your brand prefer ‘they’re’ or ‘they are’, ‘it’s’ or ‘it is’?
Punctuation: In a list, will you separate the second and third options with the Oxford comma? Are exclamation points strictly off limits? Does the full stop go inside or outside quotation marks? What type of dash will you –use long em dashes, medium en dashes, or two hyphens together?
Swearing: If you plan to allow swearing as part of your brand’s voice like Dollar Shave Club did in the product description example at the start of this article, it needs to match your values. If you’d define your brand as ‘rebellious’, then it probably works for you. If you swing more toward ‘cheerful’, it’s better to stay away.
When the small details have been hammered out, it’s time to look big picture. Storytelling allows you to present information to your customers that resonates with them on an emotional level. Stories also lead readers from one point to the next, so they won’t get lost in waves of ideas.
While not appropriate in every situation, you’ll be surprised at how frequently a story can replace mundane text.
History of your company is a good place to start. Instead of writing a bland background, give it some life by telling a compelling story about the founder’s journey.
Or, find ways to tell everyday stories. For example, GoPro highlights the videos and stories of its everyday users.
Or create a sub-culture around doing things differently. The American, outdoor gear brand, REI, combated the commercialism of Black Friday by showing the stories and photos of customers who chose to #OptOutside instead of spending the day shopping.
The biggest hurdle to implementing a tone of voice is getting everyone involved.
Your organisation and writers need to first believe in your core values – yet another reason they must be a genuine representation of your company. Having these values in place gives you guidance for which content creators to hire, and helps you bring your current ones up to speed.
Go through examples of what hits the mark, and be thorough with editing and feedback at the beginning. Give each writer copies of the guidelines, make sure they understand what’s expected and check in with them to see how it’s going.
Your tone of voice should resound from every aspect of your business. It pulls together your team and creates stronger emotional bonds with your audience.
If you’re true to your values, tone of voice will follow, and copy will become easier to write. You’ll find that everything you create can be traced back to who you are as a company, and you’ll be attracting customers based on more than just the products you sell.