WHAT IS A TONE OF VOICE?
Your company’s tone of voice isn’t what you say, but how you say it. It’s the language you use. It’s the way you construct your sentences. It’s how your words flow on the page. Most of all, it’s the personality you communicate.
Your tone of voice is an outward expression of who you are as a company and how you think about the world.
WHY IS A TONE OF VOICE IMPORTANT?
I can already imagine some of you are rolling your eyes. This sounds a bit touchy-feely-communications-and-marketing-sitting-on-beanbags-wearing-hats-and-brainstorming-ideas, doesn’t it? Bear with me.
There are several important reasons that your company or brand needs a distinct tone of voice.
1. It builds trust with your audience
Your customers should like being in touch with you. They should understand what you’re saying and not dread you getting in touch (or worse, be completely ambivalent). They need to care enough about you and your product to be engaged and request more information. The way in which you talk to your customers will, over time, build up a relationship of trust between the two of you.
2. It can be used to influence and persuade
If you’ve ever had to talk to an estate agent, or an insurance man, or even those business gurus who try to persuade you you’ll make $100,000 a month (if you just pay them $75,000 first), you’ll know how awful it feels to be sold to when you don’t to be. This is where tone of voice comes in again.
If you’ve managed to build the trust between you and your audience (see point 1) then, when you feel it’s the time to evoke action (or purchase, or sign up), your audience will be much more receptive.
3. It’s an expression of the people behind the company
Tone of voice never used to be important for businesses. 20 years ago – hang on, that’s only 1997 – ok, 4o years ago, companies relied on their product to do their selling for them. Yes, they had copy-writers, and they crafted beautiful advertising copy, but you never really got a feeling about the company itself. Things have changed.
Now, society wants to know who’s behind a brand. They want to know that corporations are human, too. Companies show this through their communications. Have a look at McDonald’s videos, or Google’s blogs, or BT’s social media. Their employees are the face of the company – not only as the creators of the content but in the tone of voice they use.
4. It sets you apart from your competitors
Much like how you’ll always remember that restaurant you went to because the food was great and the service sublime, your tone of voice (your company’s personality) will help set you aside from your competition. Can you tell the difference between one Starbucks and another? Probably not. But you remember that barista at the coffee shop who commented on your scarf and made your day, don’t you? Your company’s tone of voice is that barista.
A good tone of voice will help differentiate a company. It will turn a faceless entity into a group of people. It will express the company’s own unique personality and encourage trust and familiarity.
SO, HOW DO I DEVELOP A TONE OF VOICE?
Tone of voice normally refers to the written word. Therefore, clarity and consistency is key. Words don’t have facial expressions, body language, or changes in pitch. Your words, and the way you write them, need to clearly tell your story and come across in the way you intend them to.
To ensure there are no mixed messages, your tone of voice needs to inform all your written materials – from your website, to social media, to emails.
So where do you start?
1. Look at yourself
The best place to start is internally. Look at your company’s values and what you stand for. Your tone of voice is an expression of who you are as a company. It’s less about what you want to be in the future (your vision) but more about who you are now. What do you want to tell the world about yourself?
The culture and community you have internally should inform the conversations (and the way you have them) externally. What is the personality of your company and the people who work there? Are you friendly or more formal? Are you data-driven or do you like the big picture? Are you laid-back or lively? Do you like being quite technical or do you prefer talking about concepts?
None of these are right or wrong. Your tone of voice just needs to be a true reflection of your company. If you want your corporate tone of voice to work, above all it needs to be genuine Click To Tweet
2. Look at your audience
Secondly, have a look at your audience. Who are you talking to at the moment? Who do you want to talk to in the future? And, this is the most important thing, how do they speak and expect to be spoken to? It’s very tempting to think your tone of voice needs to be chatty, witty, and mildly irreverent. However, if this isn’t what your audience wants, then you’re going to lose them. You won’t build up that trust – in fact, you’ll probably create an atmosphere of suspicion.
As a company, you need to deliver on what your company expects from you. I get that. However, there’s no reason you need to do it in an unfriendly or overly corporate way. Your tone of voice will reflect a) what your audience expects and b) what your audience needs.
A good example of this is Apple – their support page offers technical advice in a way that’s accessible, friendly, and yet detailed. Their audiences need information, but they want it delivered in a certain way.
On the other end of the scale, look at a company like Nike. Everything about Nike says aspiration and energy. Their social media encourages users to believe in more, to be the next big thing, to not let anything stop them.
So your tone of voice needs to reflect your audience. If you’re in finance, you need to have a tone that’s reliable and trustworthy. If you’re an app or tech company, you’re innovative, fun, challenging the norm. If you’re a sports company, you’re encouraging and driven.
SCALES OF TONE
Your tone of voice should be on a scale – much like a human’s tone would be – not on extremes. Where does your company fit on these scales?
- Formal – Informal
- Detached – Warm
- Professional – Off the wall
- Serious – Humourous
- Proud – Humble
- Bold – Reserved
- Respectful – Irreverant
- Enthusiastic – Matter of fact
- Nostalgic – Modern
- Sympathetic – Unapologetic
- Trendy – Conservative
- Playful – Provocative
PUTTING IT IN PLACE
Once you’ve defined your tone of voice, it’s time to start pulling everything together. A couple of things to bear in mind.
1. Get people involved early
There’s nothing worse than slaving away on a project, only for it to be ripped apart when you thought you’d finished. You can’t expect your teammates to just accept a new tone of voice. Get people involved – especially senior management – and allow everyone to have a say on how your company is represented. This process isn’t just about ensuring everyone buys into the project, but it’ll also give you an indicator that you’re on the right track. If you get a truckload of negative comments or “suggestions” then you may have to rethink your approach. The company’s tone of voice should represent the employees, not the other way round.
2. Write a tone of voice guide
Your tone of voice needs to be used across the company – and not just by those who have direct contact with the outside world. In order for there to be consistency, you need to set out guidelines.
- Write your document in the tone of voice you’d like your employees to adopt (what’s the point in doing it any other way?).
- Be sure to give specific examples – copy used in different contexts, what to avoid, lists of specific phrases that are good or should be avoided.
- Be comprehensive. While you may have a doctorate in Grammar Studies from the University of Punctuation and Syntax, other people may not. If you want your team to use certain formats (think capitalisation, US English vs English English, or how you punctuate a bullet list) then tell them. If you want to follow a certain style guide (such as AP), then provide them access to that style guide.
- Be aware of different cultures and contexts. While a certain tone of voice might be ok for your social media, it probably won’t work in a letter of apology, or a memo announcing redundancies. Similarly, certain tones may not work in different cultures – US vs China for example. Take this into account.
3. Help your team implement it
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – you can’t expect people to change without giving them guidance on how to do things another way. Give your team training on the new style guide, let them practice, be sure they understand it’s ok to make mistakes. If formal training isn’t an option, then why not appoint tone-of-voice-guardians for a short period? They should be on hand for questions, advice, corrections, and slowly acclimatising your team to the new style.
4. Make sure there’s governance
If someone isn’t keeping an eye on the tone of voice, it’ll slowly be forgotten. There should be someone in charge of making sure the tone of voice is implemented. This could be through an editorial process (but do we need more processes in our corporate system? Probably not) or through a checklist. Whatever you do, someone has to take responsibility if your tone of voice is going to be consistent.
LEARN FROM OTHERS
Very few companies have their tone of voice documents online. I’m not sure why – maybe they think giving the public insight into their strategy takes away the effectiveness. Personally, I think being open and transparent says a lot about a company.
- MailChimp has one of the most comprehensive tone of voice and style guides online
- Buffer – an app for social media managers – has followed in MailChimp’s footsteps (and openly admits it!)
- Mozilla – makers of firefox – have a very basic outline available
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- There’s a time and place for humour. Use it sparingly. As any social media manager will tell you, reputations are made and lost on the appropriate (or otherwise) use of humour.
- Don’t confuse company tone of voice with brand tone of voice. Your company may have many brands and each of them may have an individual tone of voice. (look at the difference between the Walt Disney corporate site and one of its many microsites) Consider your different audiences and adjust your tone of voice accordingly.
- Don’t overthink your tone of voice (and don’t be persuaded by consultants who say you need a 100-page manual and accompanying powerpoint covering every situation you may ever come across). While your document needs to be comprehensive, no matter what you write, it isn’t going to compensate for bad writing. Those who understand your tone of voice won’t need much detail. Those who don’t understand it… well, a tone of voice document isn’t going to enlighten them. A tone of voice document should be a couple of pages. It should outline your values, how that translates into writing style, some dos and don’ts, and examples. You may want to add in a style guide if appropriate (see points above on how to write a tone of voice guide)
If your company communicates with the outside world, it needs to have a distinct tone of voice. If you don’t, you run the risk of being lost. Just another email/tweet/website in a sea of emails/tweets/websites. Your tone of voice will set you apart – it’ll turn your business from just another faceless corporation to a group of people working together towards the same aim.
As with all communications, you need to understand what you want to say, and why, before you can work out the how.
Above all, your tone of voice needs to reflect the people who are going to be using it.
Does your company have a tone of voice? Do you need help creating one? Maybe you need outside perspective and insight? We’ve developed tone of voice documents for companies ranging from Fortune 500 to small tech start ups. Why not ask us to help you with yours? Why not book a free one-hour consultation call and let’s see how we can work together?
Beaumont is a communications agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland. We work with clients all around the world to change the way they talk about themselves – helping them create engaging stories that motivate action.