Talking about your tone of voice
What impression are you giving your customers?
Posted by Bob Mytton
Have you ever been switching radio stations and caught the news on Radio 1 and then on Radio 4? Each is saying pretty much the same thing – same headlines, same facts, same stories and both spoken grammatically correctly and in the same language. But it's the differences between them that are most significant.
Imagine both these newscasters, what do you picture? Radio 1 is perhaps more untidy, more relaxed, younger and more casual. The newscaster speaks more quickly and in a slightly ad-hoc conversational manner. The Radio 4 newscaster might be sat upright and reading more strictly from their script in an even and authoritative tempo. It is more ‘professional’, less personal and more about providing the latest update on world events. We make these assumptions based on how they speak and the words they choose to express themselves to their audience; in a nutshell, their 'tone of voice.
Just as individuals and organisations have a distinctive voice that expresses who they are, so do brands. A brand's tone of voice determines the way that they talk to their customers and audiences. It's crucially important to get this right, and that's why we think it's essential to consider this aspect when branding or rebranding a company or organisation.
Let's not confuse this with straightforward copywriting or editing. Most brand agencies that work with written content have the ability to help clients improve their copy from poorly written to well written. But even the most beautifully written piece of copy isn't going to help your brand, if it's written in a tone of voice that isn't appropriate to your brand. Tone of voice is the bedrock upon which good, brand-appropriate copywriting stands. Crafting a distinct tone-of-voice is not an editing job, it's a 'brand level' process, and usually requires the talents of professional copywriters.
Every company has a tone of voice. If you haven't thought about it, you might even have unwittingly begun to create a tone of voice. If you're intuitive and talented at expressing yourself through language, there's a possibility that your written communications might already hold the beginnings of the right tone of voice for your brand. But there's also a good chance that it will be bland and neutral. Do you really want that to be the impression that customers gain of you as a brand?
In comparison to the very visible parts of branding such as colours or fonts, tone of voice is maybe harder to explain or justify, but it's equally important. It's easy to show everyone in an organisation your chosen colour palette, and set up templates and guidelines so they can keep things consistent. It is much harder to show people how to write in a certain tone of voice and enforce consistency across a team – unless someone insists on reading every presentation or report before it goes out. But this same difficulty presents a potential competitive advantage if you're prepared to invest in your tone of voice; because it's so under-utilised and misunderstood, it's an area of branding that can really give companies the edge.
So how do you set about it? Top-level communications are the place to start. You should begin by reviewing every piece of written content that gets published. Printed reports, marketing materials, exhibition stands, website, company stationery all present the opportunity to carry your voice as well as your visual identity. The right words will help bring these communications to life and gives them much more power to compete.
Developing the right tone of voice is a real craft and needs the involvement of a professional copywriter. And it’s not just about getting any copywriter. Like photographers, copywriters can have different styles, different approaches and different areas of expertise. You need to use one who is well versed in developing brand language.
We've found that the best way to develop a tone of voice for a brand, is to select copywriters that are a good match for the project. It’s best to get them involved at the early stages of defining the values and core messages. This means they understand what makes your company tick, and are part of the process of codifying your brand. Their deep understanding of the nuances of words and phrases will help you define your brand, and then work with you to set up rules and principles as to how it should be expressed. Then we make sure it features in the overall brand guidelines in a way that can be used internally.
Brand guidelines are made to be used. In this multi-channel age, it's important that you're able to communicate with confidence, consistency and immediacy across all channels, whether that's in advertising and print, or social media and blogs. Well-written tone of voice guidelines will be crucial in helping you and your team to maintain and develop your brand with consistency and vitality. Guidelines should usually include brand language (standard elements that you can use, reuse and adapt as required) as well as tone of voice principles to get your team in the right headspace for writing new copy. And to reassure copy generators, they might even include a set of useful dos and don'ts to check their written work against before its published.
In conclusion, tone of voice and brand language are key building blocks of a successful brand. Ask yourself what you're telling your customers, and how you're saying it. Are you always true to your brand? Are you always relevant? Are you always consistent? Take some time to carefully consider how you're talking to your audience, and there's a good chance you'll find plenty of room for improvement.