What your tone of voice can’t do for you

Laura Kennedy

Words by Laura Kennedy

“What do you mean by ‘tone’?”

OK, this is an oldie, but a goody. (At least it’s an oldie where I come from…)

In the years since I was asked this question at work, I think it’s become more common knowledge that your tone is how you say things (you know: “it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it…”).

For your brand, it’s how you use words to express who you are, what you do and why. And yes, you need one. Even if your tone isn’t quirky or unusual, you’ll at least need common dos and don’ts for your organisation or company.

(Some say even individuals should think about how they express their values too – let’s save the personal branding debate for another time, but I still like this 2017 piece on it from Mark Ritson.)

You can put out good communications without expressing your brand, but then people won’t recognise you from one to the next. You’ll be starting from scratch every time, rather than using past success as a springboard for your next message.

This is a huge topic, of course. I love the deep exploration of words and their evocations you do with tone of voice work, but in the course of the pieces I’ve done over the last couple of years, I’ve bumped up against some massive expectations and some interesting limitations. Here’s my take on some of those.

Five things your brand tone of voice WON’T do:

Roll itself out

You’ve just staggered blinking out of a post-it-filled bunker, finally clutching a brand tone description all your colleagues agree on (or at least don’t vehemently disagree on). Then you realise that’s just step one. Because now you have to put the theory into practice.

I know – so much work to do, so little time. It’s a long process. But I’ve seen it happen: you finally agree your tone of voice description, but then your staff can’t agree on how to actually express the thing in the real world – and the work is wasted.

A detailed practical guide to using your brand tone of voice, with examples of actual wording and specific dos and don’ts, will help. I feel like really good ones are quite rare – if you’ve seen loads, I’d love to know, it’d be good to be wrong on this one.

Write itself

Once you have a really good hands-on guide, you can start living that tone of voice out in your communications. But each piece still has to find the right words for the subject or content at hand, for your audience and for your channel.

So there’s no getting around it – you need decent writers, in-house or otherwise.

Fix your content strategy

A clear, recognisable tone of voice is a valuable tool to have in your marketing toolbox but it won’t do your marketing for you.

Sure, if people like how you say things, you might get more shares and recognition, but it’s not going to make all your decisions for you about what you offer your readers and what conversations you get involved in.

It won’t remove the need for a plan or budget to get your messages out there. The quality of your content is immaterial if no-one sees it.

Once you’re reaching your audience, though, a strong, differentiated voice will help you cut through noise, inspire your audiences and keep them coming back. This is possibly the hardest bit to achieve with your tone of voice, especially in the third sector, where you have to be careful with puns, irreverent attitude and over-doing the on-trend initialisms.

Always help you max your metrics

“Our tone of voice doesn’t work on social” is another office overheard that gets my brain whirring. It’s a tricky point. Social channels do have their own conventions, and if you don’t pay respect to them you’ll fail the scroll test.

But it’s fair to say not every brand tone works with a heavy peppering of emojis. And, honestly, I don’t think they should.

I wonder if there’s a tendency to mimic social audiences (or a stereotypical idea of them), appropriating word fashions rather than just speaking on a human level.

It’s similar to, say, a charity using management speak because they’re talking to corporate readers, or talking like a textbook to policy-makers (even policy-makers are human, you know).

Maybe take a moment before you hit that second exclamation mark or third emoji. Do they create the impact you want? There may be times when you’ll have to choose between the integrity of your brand voice and, say, getting clicks.

(But if you’re using metrics that measure success related to business goals, like conversion or demonstrably positive engagement, rather than just distribution and amplification, then is losing a like or two so bad if you’re staying true to your values?)

Change your culture

If you want your tone of voice to be young and modern but all your staff speak dinosaur – ‘inter alia’ this and ‘sub-addendum’ that – it could be a struggle getting your tone of voice to ring true.

I’m a big believer in investing in changing internal language first where it’s needed: how you speak to each other can then naturally flow out to your audiences (senior managers take note because this kind of change has to happen ‘at the top’ too).

If you can get your tone working from the inside out, it might just help improve the feel of your workplace as well as boost your brand. But you need more than a list of values and a brand tone description to change your whole culture.

Much as it pains a writer to say it, sometimes it takes more than words.

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