Consider the following passage of marketing text:
ABC Copywriting delivers professional, premium-quality business writing services to corporations and organisations throughout the UK. We’re a cheerful lot and we’re always chuffed to chinwag, so if you want to chat about your project, grab the rap-rod and give us a tinkle. With ten years’ experience of developing content for clients of all types, we are ideally placed to meet your copywriting needs. Our copy’s too bootylicious for ya baby!
The problem here is not quality, but consistency. While any of the ideas here might work in isolation, they are too different in terms of their ‘personality’ to gel. In other words, this text has no single, recognisable tone of voice – and this makes the communication almost totally ineffective.
What is written tone of voice?
Written tone of voice is simply the ‘personality’ of your brand or company as expressed through the written word. Tone of voice governs what you say in writing, and how you say it – the content and style of textual communications, in any setting and in any medium.
Why bother about written tone of voice?
Managing written tone of voice is a key part of achieving a unified character across all your communications, internal and external. Just as it’s desirable to have a consistent look and feel in design terms across stationery, signage, advertising and online marketing, so it’s also worthwhile ensuring that the content of all these media feels like it’s coming from a single source.
Giving a brand or company a proper ‘voice’ gives an impression of solidity, trustworthiness and honesty; in NLP terms, it makes communication congruent. Conversely, inconsistent tone of voice (or graphic style) gives a dissonant, self-contradictory impression that readers will find discomfiting, even if only on an unconscious level. As in normal life, we find it reassuring when people stay more or less the same over time – if their style of communication changes radically from one day to the next, we might trust them less, or even become concerned for their mental health.
Brand vs company tone of voice
I’m saying ‘brand or company’ as though written tone of voice were the same for both. There are a few important distinctions.
- A company might have several brands, each with its own tone of voice.
- Brand tones of voice might be completely different from other brands belonging to the same company, or from the company’s corporate tone (consider the contrast between a Walt Disney microsite and its corporate content).
- The audiences for brand and corporate content might be utterly different, with no overlap whatsoever – or they might be aimed at the same audience at different times, or in different situations.
- An individual brand’s tone of voice is likely to evolve much more quickly than a corporate tone, perhaps to stay in line with changing customer expectations, while corporate tone of voice is more monolithic, expressing the unchanging values or corporate culture of the organisation.
Defining tone of voice
The easiest way to consider tone of voice is in terms of the personality of your brand or company. If it was a person, what would they be like?
To keep things simple, three values is probably enough. More than that risks duplicating values, or obsessing over minor details. Three broad-brush statements of personality should be plenty to pin down the essence of a brand. Here are some examples:
|Value 1||Value 2||Value 3|
|IT support company||Knowledgeable||Reliable||Proactive|
If you want to liven things up a bit, you could try asking what type of car your brand would be, or what type of biscuit, or whatever. But beware of being led astray by your chosen metaphor. Inanimate objects only have the personality we project on them; this type of thinking can take you into a hall of mirrors where you’re just playing with ideas, not talking in terms of business reality. Human values are the key to strong marketing.
The problem with B2B
The last example in the table above illustrates the problem for many B2B companies: finding values that are genuinely unique. While knowledge is a key attribute of a good IT support provider, in another way it’s just the least one would expect. What differentiates one provider from another is the depth and nature of the knowledge and its application. But that kind of nitty-gritty detail doesn’t translate very well to broad-brush statements – it’s the same problem I documented in my article on writing a company tagline. The values listed above could just as easily apply to any other IT support provider – or indeed, any professional support firm of any type whatsoever. And this results in broadly similar tones of voice across the B2B sector.
To wriggle out of this straitjacket, some B2B firms pretend to have values that they actually don’t. This leads to self-consciously friendly or funky text, probably embellished with bright orange graphics and rounded corners. Personally, I think this is a mistake, as I blogged in my piece entitled Let’s be honest. Believable brand values and tone of voice can’t be a work of fiction. Your tone of voice should be consistent with reality, as well as with itself. It’s far easier to stick to a tone of voice if it’s in harmony with they way you habitually write or speak. So if your IT support company is bluff, masculine and ‘all business’, make that your tone. Some people will want a partner like that, so focus on converting your most promising prospects. If you put on a mask, people will see through it soon enough anyway.
From values to style
Armed with your three values, you can consider how they translate into the nuts and bolts of hands-on writing: register, vocabulary and grammar.
Defining the register of your writing is often a case of choosing a point on a continuum. For example, you might need to decide where your tone of voice sits between these extremes:
Vocabulary is simply the choice of words, and you might want to stipulate what type of words can and can’t be used within your tone of voice. However, we’re now moving into a complex, highly subjective realm where the definitions of terms can be slippery. Let’s say, for example, that your law firm is only going to use ‘formal’ language, or that your cellar bar is going to use ‘funky’ wording. Are you sure that everyone will understand what those words actually mean? Is your idea of ‘funky’ the same as theirs? Examples are one way to get over this problem, but it could still be an issue.
Copywriters are often told to make their writing more simple or accessible (I am, anyway), but there’s always a price to pay. Long words may sound stuffy, but they are very precise. For example, there are no genuine one-syllable synonyms for words such as ‘altruistic’ or ‘intuitive’. If you want to get rid of them, you’ll have to rephrase at length or lose some meaning. Conversely, if you use the most precise language you possibly can, some sense of friendliness or ‘looseness’ will be lost. It’s a trade-off either way.
In terms of grammar, you might want to consider whether to use contractions (‘we’re’, ‘it’s’ and so on), avoid long sentences or allow some rules to be broken (such as sentences beginning with ‘and’). Here, it’s just a question of how far you want to go, and what is useful to the people doing the actual writing. (There’s no point talking about gerunds or dependent clauses if people don’t know what they are.) Here’s a post I wrote about grammar rules it’s OK to break.
You might also want your writing to be original or arresting. While that seems a laudable aim at first sight, it won’t necessarily guarantee that your communications succeed. Originality isn’t necessarily effective. Readers over 50, for example, may be accustomed to finding certain content in a certain format or style; deviating from that norm probably won’t bring you any benefit. Instead, your aim should be to express yourself as well as possible within the communication conventions of your sector, like a film director working within a genre. For more on this, see my piece If clichés work, use them.
Variation in tone of voice
Written tone of voice is rarely the same in every situation. Just as people might speak differently to their colleagues than they do to their children, so brands need to have different verbal registers. Some of the dimensions of variation are:
- Mood. Although the underlying ‘character’ of the brand might change, it can still have different moods. For example, a series of letters designed to guide the customer of a double-glazing firm from initial introduction through to purchasing might make the transition from a bright, breezy tone through to a more serious, studious and detail-oriented feel as the relationship develops.
- Medium. Different media require different ways of speaking. The most obvious example at the moment is social media, which is generally agreed to require a different tone from other online channels or offline marketing. For more on this, see my guide to online tone of voice for business.
- Audience. Your brand might need to talk to different people. For example, a website selling children’s shoes might include content aimed at the children themselves, and other content aimed at their parents. If the users and purchasers of a product aren’t the same person, you might have to consider how you’ll talk to each group.
Keep it simple
Personally, I don’t think there’s any need to overbrain written tone of voice. Content consultants who want to play the fairy godmother might tell you that you need a huge manual on how to write in every situation – rather like the expensive ‘brand guideline’ documents that design agencies love to create. Unfortunately, tone of voice guidelines will not compensate for lack of writing ability or common sense, just as brand design guidelines do not turn the average Microsoft Word user into Peter Saville. People with a tin ear for language will not be saved by rules and regulations, because writing is an art as much as a science.
As the saying says, rules are for the observance of the foolish and the instruction of the wise. Those who ‘get it’ don’t need loads of detail, while those who don’t will be left none the wiser by it anyway. A one-page summary of your brand values, along with an explanation of how they translate into writing style, will be a huge step forward if you’ve never considered tone of voice before.
Oh, and one final thought: if you decide that you simply must publish a humungous style guide, do make sure it’s not embarrassingly full of mistakes…