How to define your tone of voice and use it for marketing

The words you use on your website, in your letters, on your products and in your documentation and marketing collateral literally define how people perceive your business. In other words, writing is branding and your tone of voice guidelines are as important as the logo and typeface you choose.

Writing is branding

Think about the companies you admire. Virgin, First Direct, Google, Innocent, the BBC, for example, all have very clear, distinctive voices. Even the CIA and MI6 have to think about tone of voice.

Many clients come to us at Articulate asking for help with tone of voice guidelines and we like to include it as part of a project for any new client that doesn’t already have their own.

We’re working on our own right now, which is why this is a burning topic for me. Also, we’re trying to improve our development process. But here’s what we know so far.

Do your research

The first stage is to understand the company, its employees, products, market, customers and values.

  • Interviews. The best way to do this, as with most research, is with intelligent interviews. The gestalt of an interview is as important as the words. Somebody’s body language may belie the bold claims they are making, for example. Also, you can use interviews to discover the power hierarchies in a company. Who is the ‘VP of NO’? Who are the brand police? Who inspires progress?
  • Focus groups can help. But I don’t trust them because I think they tell you what you want to hear. Often they are best for persuading people that the new improved recipe is better than the old one.
  • Competitor analysis. Reviews of competitor brands and sites can also help, if only to learn what not to do and how to differentiate. (Always learn from other people’s mistakes – it’s the cheapest way.) But you may also find examples of branding through writing that shine. They may need a competitive response. Virgin vs. BA is one classic example of this.
  • Existing content. A detailed review of existing content is important. Are there any good examples? This kind of ‘accidental style guide’ can help to set precedents and inspire a more consistent approach. Bad examples?
  • Rules of engagement. You need to understand what the company wants and what it will tolerate. For example, can it relax into addressing the reader directly (‘you’) and using the first person (‘we’). Is it serious, witty, whimsical? What rules did they follow before?

Remember to differentiate between style (e.g. sentence construction, grammar, ordering) and tone, which is the emotional and persuasive content of the writing and the techniques used to do it.

Finding the balance

The guidelines you come up with need to balance:

  • Promise. Enough aspirational uplift that the tone of voice guidelines are exciting for customers and motivational for staff. Go where the ball is heading not where it is now.
  • Ground truth. What is actually true about the company today. It is counter-productive to talk about a business in a way that simply doesn’t ring true. You’ll disillusion customers and get a cynical response from staff if you go too far.
  • Fizz and ginger. Use your best examples. Write something that shows what is possible. Use before and after text to highlight the differences.
  • The prosaic necessities. Give examples of real-world usage. Describe products, write web copy etc. In fact, the more mundane the starting text, the more useful it is as an example. If you don’t address the realities of the business, the guidelines will not be useful.

Tone of voice guideline template

A typical tone of voice handbook will include:

  • Some thoughts about the audience(s). Ideally with psychographic data and/or personas to help the reader understand their needs.
  • Relevant advice about different use cases, e.g. sales, marketing, website, letters, support etc. Not just who is reading it but when and where they’re reading it.
  • Who is speaking. What is the voice of the company? Can you give some background information that helps the user understand how to speak with that voice?
  • What is the viewpoint? What does this ‘voice’ know about? What is its attitude to the reader, the product, the market, the competition? What vibe or emotion does it feel? What does it want?
  • Language. Is it formal? Relaxed? Jokey? What kinds of words are definitely required and which words are forbidden? One way to get at this is to ask what existing publications are you trying to emulate, the Financial Times, The Sun, a novel, a tax form?
  • Structure. Do you use the Pyramid Principle? The journalist’s inverted pyramid? Is it a colloquial conversation? Witty banter? Can you ask questions?
  • Good before and after examples that help the user learn how to do it themselves.
  • A controlled vocabulary. Words that you have to use (e.g. product names long and short). Words that you must always replace (e.g. ‘we don’t talk about our product as an ‘application’ but as a ‘service’).
  • Links to other relevant information such as a brand bible for graphic design elements, people who can give further guidance, style guides etc.

Necessary but not sufficient

Once you have good guidelines, you’re not done. There are some other things required for good writing.

  • Deployment. Having a document doesn’t guarantee compliance. You need to make sure people understand it, use it, refer to it. This means making it easily accessible, e.g. on an intranet site and in print.
  • Writing training. Tone of voice guidelines do not guarantee good writing. They don’t add much value if they advise people to write from the perspective of the reader or to use short words, for example. That’s just good writing and it should be encouraged parallel. Writing training is very helpful.
  • House style guide. Tone of voice is also not the same as style. You need to ensure consistent spelling, punctuation, treatment of dates and telephone numbers etc. You can shortcut this by adopting a good third-party style guide, such as The Economist Style Guide.
  • Imagery. Innocent Drinks (that lovely independent British company that’s 58% owned by Coca-Cola), is widely cited as a tone of voice role model. It actually uses visual elements, such as pencil drawings to support its writing. I suspect that this is what makes it so memorable.
  • Professional writers. Most people can write but most people are not writers. For important copy, for example, anything that customers might see during the sales cycle, you should really think about getting in the professionals, like, ahem, Articulate.
  • Proofreading. Whoever does your writing, you need to get it properly checked before publishing it. All great writers have an editor – reading is an essential part of writing. You can do it in-house or use a professional proofreading firm.

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