Tone of voice (TOV) is a hot topic right now, but there’s a lot of confusion about what it is – and what it isn’t. We filter the noise to give your brand a voice that will be heard.
You’re on the train home from work. You sit down, clock your fellow passengers and scan the ads, hoping to be inspired, amused or informed.
There’s a mix of brands: TV channels, phone cards, drinks, cryptocurrencies, mattresses in boxes … and they all sound the same.
Don’t get me wrong, the ads are well written and sometimes pretty funny. First, they empathize with my problems. Then, they introduce what they’re selling. It’s a good tactic, but when everyone is doing the same, the ads feel forced and contrived rather than authentic and personal.
So, what’s going wrong? When a brand has clearly put so much effort into its tone of voice and messaging, why does it sound the same as everyone else?
The truth is that what many brands call “tone of voice” is really communication best practice.
What do I mean? Well, if you’ve ever tried to establish tone of voice guidelines for your brand, you’ll most likely have come across one of the following.
THREE THINGS EVERY BRAND’S TOV SHOULD BE
In today’s ultra-connected age, everyone needs to be approachable – including brands.
Of course, this can take various forms. Brands like Innocent and Dave have opted for a humorous tone. eve sleep has gone with an empathetic, “we understand” vibe. Even Barclays have positioned themselves as being on your side – using musical root vegetables.
Whether you’re a bank, a fashion chain or a SaaS company, you won’t get far without being personal. So make sure you write like a real person – not a marketing robot – be relatable and inject plenty of personal pronouns into your copy.
You might think you can get away with being boorish, controversial and inappropriate. But most likely, you can’t. So while you want to be personal and friendly, make sure you stay on the right side of professionalism – or you could find yourself facing a PR disaster.
Content quality is not subjective. Or at least not fully. In fact, you can objectively measure your content’s clarity. And the clearer your copy, the more effective it is and the greater its impact.
How can you improve your content?
- Be concise.
People’s attention spans are growing shorter and shorter, so don’t waffle. Say what you need to say and leave it at that.
- Choose simple words.
Say “use”, not “utilize”, “while” instead of “whilst”. Make your message easy to understand with simple words.
- Keep sentences short.
Short sentences are punchier, easier to digest and more vibrant. For best results, aim for fewer than 20 words per sentence.
- Use the active, not the passive voice.
It gives you more ownership, reduces sentence length and creates more compelling copy.
- Score your readability.
Whether it’s Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning-Fog, or one of the other readability tests out there, set your desired level and stick to it. Best practice is to pitch your writing at the reading level of a 13-year-old – and you can easily check this with a readability test.
- Make the most of technology.
There are lots of free tools to help make your writing clearer, more engaging and easier to understand. Use them. We particularly like Hemingway, Unsuck It and CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer.
You don’t need a marketing genius and weeks of research to know that being personal, professional and clear will improve your brand’s communication and customer engagement.
But don’t be fooled.
These steps are not enough on their own for your TOV to stand out. Any brand that’s serious about the content it produces is already doing this.
To develop a unique voice, you’ll need to follow the steps below.
HOW TO DISCOVER YOUR BRAND’S UNIQUE VOICE
1. IMMERSE YOURSELF
If you want to sound different, work out what makes you different. So interview key stakeholders, send questionnaires to customers, run focus groups, scrutinize direct and indirect competitors. In short, do whatever it takes to answer the below questions – our suggested focus group exercises are a great place to start:
- What’s your brand story?
Exercise: ask each group member to briefly describe the brand story in their own words, highlighting any aspects they feel are particularly important. Once each member has read their version aloud, identify common factors and discuss anything surprising that came out.
- Do you have a brand personality? What are your values?
Exercise: discuss how your brand currently operates – its emails, social media presence, customer service, internal communication. Use this to distill your brand identity into three key phrases.
- What are your competitors doing?
Exercise: if you could steal one thing from your competitors, what would it be and why?
- Why is your brand different?
Exercise: what is your brand’s elevator pitch? In 30 seconds or less, explain why someone would want to buy from you.
- How do you want to sound and why?
Exercise: Break the focus group into pairs and ask them to come up with three different ways of describing the company, using different registers. Which version do they prefer and why? Once every pair has read out their answers, ask the group to vote for their favourite.
- Who is your target market? What’s the best way of connecting with them?
Exercise: ask each member of the group to design the brand’s perfect customer on a piece of paper, then present it to the group. Discuss the different ideas. What works and what doesn’t? How could the brand adapt itself to target these people more effectively?
2. DEFINE YOUR BRAND
Once you’ve collated your research, come up with words that describe how your brand should sound. Think of as many as possible and group them into three or four principles. These principles or concepts will form the cornerstones of your tone of voice. (Note that any more than four will be difficult to remember and embed.)
3. DEVELOP TOV GUIDELINES, EXAMPLES AND TRAINING
Now’s the time to get practical. And what that looks like will depend on what you want your content to achieve, who you want to speak to and on which channel.
For instance, how do you balance your humorous tone of voice with the care and respect demanded by a customer complaint? A punchy, hashtag-heavy tweet might look good on Twitter, but how can you make this consistent with the longer content on your website?
Avoid these headaches by building detailed guidelines on what your new tone sounds like “in action” – across a range of channels and content types. Don’t just assume your colleagues will know what to do, show them. Before and after examples are a great way of doing this, allowing you to contrast your new style with the old one. For maximum clarity, add a rationale to explain what you’ve done.
Then, run training workshops to go into more detail, clarify doubts and let your team practise until they feel comfortable with the new tone of voice guidelines. Don’t give up until they’ve been adopted across the company and partner agencies. And make sure that everyone who writes for your brand knows your tone of voice inside out.
4. BE FLEXIBLE
No one sounds the same 100% of the time – and neither should you. Be prepared to adapt your voice to suit the occasion. Responding to a customer complaint probably isn’t the best time to crack a joke, but you can still find creative ways to express your voice, even in tricky situations – as this cease and desist letter from Netflix proves.
If you want your brand’s voice to “sing” globally, you’ll need to make sure it’s properly adapted for each market.
For example, how do you interpret being personal in France or Italy, where you must address people either formally or informally? If your brand enjoys playing with words in English, how will that translate into German? (Check out how we helped Sipsmith with that particular dilemma.) Sometimes your tone will need to shift slightly. If you’re a luxury brand in Zurich, for instance, don’t shout too loudly about it – everything is luxury there.
Without in-depth market knowledge, you could miss these regional differences – and the impact of your brand voice could suffer as a result.
HOW NOT TO BE TONE DEAF
In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness of the importance of tone of voice for brands, especially with the rise of social media and content marketing.
But there’s still a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes a good tone of voice. The basics – personality, professionalism and clarity – are a good starting point, but they’re not enough.
If you want your brand to stand out, identify a unique voice that captures your history, values and vision. A voice with many tones, adapted for channel, audience and market. Only then will you make yourself heard above the din.