There’s a reason silly tone of voice workshops with games and Post-its exist.
You’re trying to get answers from a lateral approach. You can’t ask people trying to run a business, ‘what’s our tone of voice?’ or even, ‘what are we?’
It doesn’t work. You get the same tired clichés or just…nothing.
So, we have to come at it in a more tricksy way.
Exercises for making tone of voice decisions
Ask the customer
Oh boy, oh boy. Your customers know exactly what your brand is, even if you don’t.
Something I’ve found helpful is pasting a few months’ worth of customer reviews into word cloud software (which I’d normally avoid like the plague as this isn’t University Powerpoint 101) to get a semantic field of a brand – according to the real world, not the board room.
Words and phrases that come up again and again (both positive and negative) tell you the main points that are standing out to customers. These are, importantly, experience-based, rather than purpose or aspiration-based, which we should all be focusing on more when we’re trying to sell our stuff.
If you’re getting a lot of words you really wish weren’t being associated with your brand, that gives you some things to overcome with brand (like: people say your customer service is robotic, so do some tone training).
The positive words and phrases should inform the character you’re trying to write with your tone of voice.
Write down what you already know
Think about the rules you have, that maybe haven’t been written down.
Examples of tone of voice decisions:
- We would NEVER write Titles Like This. Why? What makes you feel that way? Is it because you think it looks formal and old-fashioned? OK, so your voice is relaxed and current.
- We don’t use gendered terms like ‘he’ to mean ‘a person’. Why? Because that’s not how modern society works and it’s offensively excluding. That means we’re forward-thinking and inclusive.
- We always use language in a way that feels like a conversation, contractions etc. – that’s probably because you think plain English is easier to understand. So…clarity is more important than showing off or looking posh.
Make it your brand story
I like to then turn these things into storylines or phrases to live by, so people buy into them. ‘Friendly’ may mean different things to different people; be more creative and descriptive so these things aren’t ignored.
Relaxed = ‘No problem’: the way we talk reassures you that this is not going to be complicated, we’ve got your back and we’re with you all the way.
Inclusive = ‘For everyone’: whoever you are, you’ll be treated with respect and understanding from product design to customer service.
Clarity = ‘Clarity over cleverness’: we know our stuff but we don’t need to show off, and it’s our job to make this simple.
Tone of voice is more than the technical rules of how we write and how we look. It’s the why of those things, the character that demands the rules for its self-expression.
I am not a person who would ever say, ‘Have a good one!’ while I love to say, ‘Y tho’. The reasoning is that I hate cliched small talk and love Gen Z nihilism (always expressed with no punctuation). And what is at the heart of that? I think I’m cool. I think I’m young. That’s my brand: an old lady with the soul of a sulky teenager.
Find that for your brand and you’ve found the spirit of it. THAT is the voice.
Looking for a place to start on your copywriting standards? I’ve got the technical stuff for you, too.