The quote above points out that it’s not just what an organization does, but who it is that makes it a brand. A tone of voice both embodies and expresses the brand’s personality and set of values. It’s about the people that make up the brand – the things that drive them, their loves and hates, and what they want to share with the world.
A brand’s tone of voice should be distinctive, recognizable and unique. This may seem like a tall order until we consider the use of our own language in everyday life. We all employ language – both written and spoken – in our own way. Of course, culture and dialect are the most significant factors dictating our approach to words. But within these, we each have our own idiosyncrasies, favorite expressions, inflections, pace and so forth.
Here is a strong link between familiarity and trust. Because something familiar requires little effort to process mentally, we are more likely to feel at ease around it. Thinking along these lines, an organization must be consistent in its use of language so that its writing becomes familiar to the audience. Creating a specific tone of voice, then, plays a crucial part in this.
As author Maya Angelou once said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”
It’s often the way we say something that breeds a certain feeling. People can be very sensitive to language, forming impressions of people as soon as they begin to hear or read their words.
A simple request can be articulated in different ways.
Carefully chosen words can be used to persuade or influence an audience. By and large, a successful tone of voice should go without notice. The aim is not for your audience to remark on your great writing but, instead, to remark on your great organization.
A tone and voice is an expression of an organization’s values and way of thinking. It cannot be plucked from thin air, created on a whim or entirely based on a trend you think is cool. Rather, it must grow out of who you already are as an organization. Not who you might be tomorrow, but what you look and sound like today.
Pinning down your values acts as a kind of background work – before you can think about how you write, you must decide on what you write.
This must start with the obvious yet easily forgotten question: what is it you want to tell the world? It is only once you define the core purpose of your communication that you can start to build your tone of voice.
In order to identify your values, here are a few exercises to help you:
In 30 seconds or less, state why someone would come to a website about your organization. This will force you to identify your unique selling point, but may also help you pin down an important organization value.
Boil down the values of your organization into a few keywords. These can be adjectives such as intelligent, professional, frank or witty. Equally, they can be phrases or non-descriptive words such as love, think, best friend, push yourself.
Once you have identified your organization values, you can start thinking about your personality. (If values are what you say, personality is how you say it.)
It’s easy to assume you want a down-to-earth chatty style with the odd bit of humor. But is this really what your customers want? Work out how you feel about language by mulling over these considerations.
Formal language can convey a sense of professionalism as well as the qualities of being authoritative and respectful. On the flipside, it runs the risk of being stiff and lacking in personality.
For example “We wish to inform you of a new offer currently available.”
In contrast, informal language can more easily be filled with personality and warmth, yet may be accused of being reckless and lacking professionalism.
We all have the tendency to express something clearly in spoken language, but when at a keyboard feel the need to complicate and ‘dress it up’. Writing in a way that reflects how you speak doesn’t necessarily mean your language must be very casual; you can still apply the same manners and considerations, just without all the more formal terminology.
Of course, there will be times when technical terms are needed because they are very specific in their meaning. Yet, wherever possible, consider using everyday language that your audience will understand. Call to mind the journalistic principle KISS – keep it simple, stupid.
The use of colloquial language is a sure-fire way of injecting personality. But beware of dating your copy – an expression that is popular and relevant now may not be so in six months’ time. The same goes for pop culture references. It is probably a good idea to avoid these in the static copy.
The choice of pronouns can make a marked difference to marketing copy, setting up the nature of the relationship between the organization and its audience. For example, there is currently a trend with companies that have traditionally been seen as overly self-interested to frequently use ‘you’ or ‘your’ as a way of suggesting their prime concern with customer needs.
The ordering of pronouns in a sentence can also carry weight. Compare these sentences:
The first suggests that the company reacts to the customer. While seemingly more proactive in its approach, the company featured in the second sentence nonetheless positions its own agency ahead of that of its customer.
Once you have an idea of what you are saying, and the vocabulary and tone of how you want to say it, you might want to think about bigger structural devices such as storytelling.
Storytelling is a way of presenting information about your organization in a way that resonates on an emotional level with your audience. It’s also a way of turning an otherwise chaotic bundle of information into something more coherent, where the story arc gives direction as the reader is led from one idea to the next.
If told well, a story will embody a company’s beliefs and personality but in a way that is, first and foremost, entertaining and memorable for the audience.
This is achieved by boiling down the story’s elements to their simplest parts until they exist as universal concepts that pretty much anyone can relate to.
A good story must:
A story must feature a series of challenges or obstacles that lie in the path of the protagonist and whatever he or she is trying to achieve.
There needs to be someone who is responsible for ensuring that the tone of voice is implemented across all relevant areas. Without this, it is very easy for guidelines to be forgotten or lost among the cracks of everyday work life.
This person will need to put in place some kind of governance, most likely in the form of a well-oiled editorial process. All copy might have to be sent to an editing team before publishing, for example. Or perhaps writers will need to complete a checklist after each piece of copy, asking them to confirm certain standards have been met. Either way, there needs to be a logical process whereby unsuitable copy is identified at an early stage and then fixed.
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