Write for even a small number of clients, and the term ‘tone of voice’ is likely to crop up before too long. It’s a discipline that’s only really been considered a part of branding for the last decade or so – but creating voices in writing has been around since mankind started to write creatively.
Wordtree’s Liz Doig has put together this whistle-stop tour of what tone of voice is, how to work with it – and where it can go wrong.
What is tone of voice?
At Wordtree, we define tone of voice as personality expressed in words. Human beings all have their own unique style of expression. An easy way to think about this is that we all choose to wear different clothes. What we wear tends to be a direct expression of who we are and what we like.
Our language is an even purer expression of who we are, because the majority of the time, we don’t even think about it. We just open our mouths, and our personality comes tumbling out.
The really interesting thing is that as well as transmitting our own personalities, we’re constantly judging other people’s. Based on what they’re wearing, how they’re moving around – and the words they use, we begin to decide if we like another person and if we can get on with them.
This makes language a massively important asset for brands. In a world of overwhelming choice, consumers aren’t just looking for a product or service that does a good job (the truth is, most of them do). They’re looking for brands they can get on with.
So successful brands take a deliberate and thought-through approach to the language they use, making sure that it consistently expresses the personality they want their consumers to feel.
This practice of manufacturing – and consistently using a (usually) human-sounding tone across a whole organisation is what tone of voice is.
Is tone of voice called anything else?
Yes. Some organisations call it verbal identity. Some call it brand language. In Scandinavia, it’s often referred to as company voice.
How do you know if an organisation has a tone of voice?
Good question. If it’s a well-established tone of voice, you’ll feel it in all of the organisation’s communications. If you start to write for an organisation that has invested in a company-wide language programme, they’ll probably share their tone of voice guidelines with you.
It’s a good idea to ask if a company has tone of voice guidelines when you start writing for them.
What do tone of voice guidelines look like?
Ha! Well, successful ones tend to be comprehensive. They’ll give you a clear understanding of the brand’s personality, and what kind of devices and approaches you need to bring to your writing to express it consistently.
They should give you plenty of before and after examples, as well as a clear, useable description of how you turn the volume of your voice up and down for different occasions.
A one-pager is not a tone of voice guideline. Yet sadly, you’re likely to come across a fair amount of one-page tone of voice documents – and they’re a complete waste of time. Usually, they’ve been created by a design agency. They cost for a tone of voice guideline as part of a wider rebrand, use all the budget on design – and then throw in a single tone of voice page as an afterthought.
This page is likely to say something like, “We’re accessible! We’re friendly! We’re passionate!” As opposed to what, exactly?
If you have to use one of these ‘guidelines’ to write, then just write well. When you have more of a feel for tone of voice, you can always offer to recreate the organisation’s guidelines for them.
What’s involved in creating a tone of voice?
It depends. If you’re creating a one-off piece, or you know you’re going to be the only writer on a campaign or brand, then it’s relatively straightforward.
You imagine the character you want to portray consistently in words. It’s almost the same as creating a fictional character. Except that in fiction, a character can just come to you and take you along with it.
To create a voice for a brand, the voice you develop has to strongly convey characteristics of the brand. So you need to imagine a character – or even set of characters – that embodies everything that makes the brand different and special.
Which is why characteristics like ‘accessible’ and ‘friendly’ are no help whatsoever. (If your writing isn’t accessible, what’s the point? And what kind of friendly?)
Then you channel that voice consistently through everything you write. I’ve just written some stories for a drinks brand in this way, and it was a lot of fun.
However, when most companies talk about tone of voice, what they mean is introducing a systematic change in the way that language is used across their organisation.
Which means as well as creating a voice, you need to be able to codify exactly how it works so that other people can learn to write in it too.
Where do you start?
At Wordtree, we always start with the brand. We need to know the brand’s position in its marketplace and its personality. Anything else we can find out about the brand – including its competitors – we hoover up too.
When we have a firm understanding of the personality, we begin to let it talk to us. We create a character in our heads and write down what that character is saying.
Then we look at how this character’s language is actually working. How long are the sentences this character uses? Do they use more Latinate vocabulary than Germanic? Does their speech use assonance and sibilance to feel slow and soothing – or is it rapid-fire?
Then we write down a list of characteristics of the voice. Many of these will then become the ‘rules’ for recreating this tone.
Who does it well?
A number of our clients – like Standard Life, Shelter and Dobbies – have done a sterling job of fundamentally changing the way they communicate in every situation.
With our help creating a tone of voice – and then training (sometimes thousands) of people in their organisations to use it – they’ve transformed the experience for their customers and clients.
Other brands whose language we admire include:
The language clearly reflects the brand’s eco personality – it’s not wasteful or waffly. It invites the reader in by telling a story.
Their language is really focused on the reader. They cut through their internal processes and feel conversational, fun and light-hearted – and easy to deal with. And we love how this voice carries through to different areas of the business – like this customer letter.
This brand has captured its character perfectly as the ‘man with a van’. It talks directly to its audience in a functional, practical and no-nonsense way.
The cancer support charity has managed to strike the balance between being direct and clear, yet supportive. They don’t hide behind medical jargon or uncomfortable language – nor do they feel condescending or patronising. We imagine a Lorraine Kelly personality when we hear Macmillan – a person you can talk to.
If you want to learn more about creating tone of voice for your clients, take a look at Wordtree’s Understand Tone of Voice and Create a Tone of Voice in Two Days workshops. Or have a read of Brand Language: Tone of Voice the Wordtree Way® – currently the only book on the market outlining how to create a tone of voice. You can also get more insights into tone of voice over on the Wordtree blog.