First things first – what is tone of voice? It’s always used as a stock phrase, tone-of-voice, but let’s have a look at what it actually means, shall we?
The voice is the overall personality of your company. It’s shaped around core values that you hold dear, which define your purpose and mission.
You have one voice but many tones. A modern business is in so many different places at once, it has to adapt to the different audiences it comes across each day. These different tones rely on register (how posh you come across) and style (how you make that level of posh happen).
All together, these elements add up to make ‘tone of voice’.
Establishing your brand voice
As I’ve said, your voice is based on values. Think up two lists: one of words that describe your business, and one of promises or mission statements.
My company is…
My company promises…
- To be honest
- To champion talent
- To be responsible
- To constantly improve
- To value customer input
To get these values across in everything you do, you need to think about words that do and do not make that happen. Make two lists: brand words and banned words.
My banned words may be looking a little familiar – check out the article I wrote about words you need to banish from your website copy.
Banned words might be things you want other people to say about you but you shouldn’t have to say yourself, like innovative. They could also be words that have connotations that aren’t part of your brand, like cool. But maybe they’re just words you’ve seen everywhere, and you’d like to distance yourself from so you don’t blend into the crowd.
I’ve found it useful in the past to write company translations – how your business says things better. This depends a lot on what you do and what your audience is but rarely do you want to make simple things more complicated. Always remember that simple words are how people really talk in their heads, so they emote more with them.
This is a nerd fact but often the words you need to translate have fancy pants Latin in their etymology (word history) and the translation you want is the earthier Anglo-Saxon word. This makes copy much easier to read – think ‘amicable’ vs. ‘friendly’. Which one is more…well, friendly?
Check out this great article about translating fussy, Latinate language into down-to-earth Anglo-Saxon language.
Establishing your tones
Everywhere your business is seen, your core values should always shine, and you should try to stick to your brand / banned word lists.
But different situations call for different tones. On social media, you might want to be fun but helpful; in a white paper about the need for your new product, you’ll want to be authoritative. This is achieved by changing your register.
It’s the different between talking to your friend, talking to your child’s head teacher and talking to the prime minister. Those are three very distinct steps up in register, but there are lots of shades of grey.
You should decide on the register of each of your arenas by what audience you meet there. It might come in handy to think up some customer personas that go with each to help you think of what kind of words (and punctuation and grammar and spelling), images and content each audience engages with. Yup, images have register too!
For legal documents and official letters, you might need a more serious tone that makes you sound 100% down the line, with no funny business and no smirking.
Keep your business keywords and your values – those should never change. Just use language that can’t be interpreted as you being casual about something that’s very important to a customer.
On social media in particular, you don’t want to sound like someone made a board member take charge. It’s fresh, it’s dynamic and it’s in people’s homes – be their friend.
Until something goes wrong. That’s when you need to pull it back a bit into something between low and high register. A good old fashioned “We apologise” is going to work out better for you than “Soz, LOL” in a conflict.
P.S. Don’t guess. Use your social analytics to tell you how old your average follower is, what their interests are, where they live and so on. Even Pinterest has now launched a revamped analytics page to give you demographic stats, so you can get your hands on plenty of knowledge about your audiences – and big clues to the tones they’ll probably respond to.
Style is a huge subject but generally speaking it’s the itty bitty choices you need to make to portray your chosen register. Things like:
- Do we use contractions? (it’s, they’re, we’ve)
- Do we use colloquial or trendy language? (in for a penny, wicked)
- Do we capitalise job titles? (our Business Manager, a Fitter)
- Do we spell things -ise or -ize? (emphasise, realize)
These things are all choices – there isn’t a right or wrong answer, but they build your style. And your style contributes to the low/middle/high registers that establish your tones, which all come together to make your VOICE.
[ETA You can get the full low-down on style in the Knowledge Centre now: how to build your own mini copy style guide.]
Tone of voice examples
Check back next week for 10 things to consider for your brand’s style.Tone of voice is discussed a lot. But what is 'voice' and what is 'tone' - and how do I find it? Click To Tweet