A great tone of voice gets everywhere – not just in all the obvious places, like product information and adverts, but wherever your words can impact on your customer. From transactional emails to error messages to online forms, a strong voice can lift a dull or difficult message into a powerful brand touchpoint.
5 steps to developing and implementing a tone of voice
To do this successfully, you need a well-defined voice that is both consistent and flexible – a voice that can adapt according to context, medium, audience and message. Here’s how to go about defining and developing your voice in 5 straightforward steps...
- Look at where you’re at. Start by thinking about who you are and what you stand for. What are your brand values? Your USP? Then think about your audience(s). Who are your key customer groups? What do they want from you? What do they want from your website? Look at your comms: find some examples you really like, and ones you really don’t. How do others in your space use their voice? Where is the opportunity to stand out from the crowd?
- Develop some values. Turn that thinking into a list of 5 tonal values, any of which could complete the sentence, “When we write, we want to sound x”. To make these as specific as possible for your authors, break each value down further using Always/Never, eg for the tonal value ‘friendly’: ‘We ALWAYS sound helpful, welcoming, polite – we NEVER sound over-familiar or chatty.’
- Create some language rules and examples. Put in place some practical copywriting guidance for your authors on how to write in your voice. For ‘friendly’, you might advise writers to use lots of ‘you’ and ‘we’, and to focus on benefits, not features. Include a list of words to use and words to avoid. Most importantly, create some good and bad examples to illustrate each tonal value. Writers find the contrast between these versions really instructive.
- Use your guidelines to flex your voice. You may have different audiences for different products or communications. Use your guidelines to show how you would apply your voice in these different contexts. What counts for you as ‘friendly’ in a tweet might be quite different to ‘friendly’ in a corporate white paper, for instance. It's alright to use language of more complexity in one area of your site than in another, for instance, so long as it's pitched right for the intended audience. Jargon isn’t jargon if you can be confident that your key users get what you’re talking about. And don’t forget that this approach should incorporate every type of comms. It’s only too easy to develop guidelines that focus purely on your core marketing channels, meaning you’re missing out on other, significant brand-building opportunities.
- Choose 1 value as the focus for each message. It can be tough for a writer to work 5 tonal values into 1 communication, especially when writing something very brief and focused like an email or a banner. So instead, choose 1 value as the focus of a communication. ‘Friendly’ might be a good focus for a customer service message, for instance, while a different value like ‘passionate’ or ‘expert’ might be better for a blog post.
Making voice work online
When working on defining your voice, make sure that your approach to language doesn’t conflict with the basics of web-writing best practice. Digital content needs to be self-contained, instantly informative, scannable, accessible and rich in search keywords. Bear in mind that tone online is expressed in at least 3 ways:
- Language selection: Do you say ‘gift’ or ‘prezzie’? ‘Kind regards’ or ‘Yours sincerely’? Do you use more dashes or semi-colons? Cumulatively, all these tiny decisions create an impression of your brand.
- Messaging: How you position your messages has a massive tonal effect. Does your homepage say ‘Acme plc were founded in 1972...’ or ‘Why Acme plc for you’? Which approach do you think sounds more user-focused?
- Information design: The way your content is laid out creates a strong impression for good or bad. The most impassioned messaging will have little effect if it’s presented as an impenetrable slab of text – because no one will ever actually read it.