Tone of voice. Writers, agencies and consultancies all talk about it. But what is it? What does it look (or sound) like and do you need one?
Here’s a list of questions people often ask. With some answers.
WHAT IS TONE OF VOICE?
Most brands have a logo, a colour palette and typeface. Tone of voice is pretty much the same thing, but for words and writing.
That’s the short answer. The long(er) answer is more complicated. For one thing, everyone writes. So you can’t be as strict about how to use tone of voice as you can about a logo (mind you, visual guidelines are getting less prescriptive, but that’s another story). On top of that, many writers and agencies claim to do tone of voice, but what a lot of them actually do is give basic and generic ‘how to write better’ rules, or come up with a tone that people can’t use.
Here are the nuts and bolts of a good tone of voice:
1. It fits with the brand – it’s why banks with chatty words don’t work.
2. It’s practical – anyone who writes needs to be able to use it.
3. It’s consistent – the same tone is used everywhere (from receipts and letters to signs and notices).
Ideally, a tone of voice should be distinctive as well. But that’s harder to pull off in big organisations with lots of people (especially if you want it to be practical). It’s why the handful of brands who have a brilliant tone of voice are either small, like howies, or act as if they are and have a small, full-time team of writers, like Innocent.
ISN’T TONE OF VOICE JUST GOOD WRITING OR ‘PLAIN ENGLISH’?
No, it’s more than that. It’s about helping a brand put across its personality in words. The Plain English Campaign has done a lot to get rid of gobbledygook, especially in the public sector. But it’s about clear writing, not about writing with personality. ‘Plain’ isn’t much of an aspiration.
CAN ONE TONE OF VOICE WORK FOR LOTS OF DIFFERENT AUDIENCES?
Yes. When brands mimic their audiences they sound like they’ve got a split personality. We used to do a lot of work for mobile phone companies. They’d try to write like Jay-Z when they were writing for teenagers and like an annual report when they were writing for business. It didn’t work. Customers got confused. We also worked on a project for a big art gallery. Oddly their best writing was for kids: it was clear and had lots of personality. But as soon as they wrote about conceptual art, the tone turned formal and the words became incomprehensible because that’s what they thought critics and academics expected.
It helps to differentiate between content and tone. To go back to the mobile phone example, teenagers want to know different things to business customers – but that’s all about content. You don’t need to start talking in text speak to teenagers or put on a corporate voice for business customers. The whole point of tone of voice is to find a tone that goes with your brand, and sounds like you, no matter who you’re writing to.
I’M WRITING ABOUT A SERIOUS SUBJECT, SO DOESN’T MY TONE NEED TO BE SERIOUS TOO?
Again, that’s the difference between content and tone. What you say can be serious, but how you say it can be just as clear as if you’re talking about what you had for breakfast.
We often hear a similar excuse for littering writing with jargon-y industry blah words. Something like this: ‘my clients are serious global such-and-such people, they understand our industry words’. Sometimes (at a push), you will have to use industry words but if every other word is in industry-speak it’ll be horrible to read. And don’t mix that up with using empty words like leverage or solution. They don’t actually add anything at all. In the end, no one has ever complained – or will ever complain – that something is too clear. And readers certainly won’t ask you to put more jargon in.
HOW DO I GET EVERYONE IN MY COMPANY TO USE A TONE OF VOICE?
It’s not easy. Companies often underestimate how much work is involved. You’ll need to invest a lot of management time to do it well and think of it as an ongoing thing, not a one-off. A lot like branding in general, actually. It helps if:
– at least one person in your organisation manages it.
– you give people hands-on training (trying it out is the best way to learn) and you keep topping that up.
– make sure managers use it and lead by example.
– make it something people aren’t scared to try (no school rules, no red pen).
HOW ABOUT PEOPLE WHO AREN’T AS GOOD AT WRITING?
Some people are bound to be better at writing than others. Tone of voice can’t change that. But it nearly always makes the standard of everyone’s writing better. And we’ve found that writing ability is rarely the problem. The biggest thing to get over is permission – giving people the confidence to write in a less corporate way.
WHAT ARE TONE OF VOICE GUIDELINES LIKE?
People like to close their eyes and hope that tone of voice guidelines mark the end of a project. But really they’re just the start. The most important thing is for people to write. Lots.
Still, we’re surprised how many big brands have pages about logo exclusion zones, but are happy to sum up their tone in a paragraph.
Our guideline guidelines:
– Give some overall principles, along with some linguistic tips that people can actually use when they write.
– Put together lots of examples of the tone being used for different things and in different situations. And explain how you wrote them. (If they’re rewrites it’s really useful to compare before and afters side-by-side.)
– Sometimes it helps to flag up some jargon-y words and alternatives, or write them up in a separate style guide.
CAN YOU COME UP WITH A BETTER NAME FOR TONE OF VOICE?
We wish. It’s better than ‘verbal identity’ which is what Interbrand call it. We’re certainly not wedded to it. Answers on a postcard.