As online copywriters, we are constantly asked to ensure that the words we produce for a client are "on-brand" or "in our voice" or "checked for style and tone". As the web has matured and big brands look for new ways to stand out from the crowd online, this issue is getting bigger and bigger. We've become more and more involved in training clients in developing a distinctive online tone of voice. Only problem is: lots of people don't really know what tone of voice is, or how to describe it, or how to enforce it consistently. Tone of voice isn't something you can easily measure or check with a clever bit of analytic software. So what is tone of voice? How do you work out what tone is right for you? And how do make sure all your people (a) get it and (b) use it consistently?
Feel the difference
Let's not get too bogged down in definitions. Tone of voice is easier to feel than to describe. Take a chicken recipe from Delia Smith, and another from Jamie Oliver and ask: what sort of person wrote this? Jamie is yoof-fully bish-bash-bosh, dynamic and all-inclusive; Delia is cordial and informative, but holds the reader at arm's length, a prim schoolmarm with a mission to educate about Good Food. Different personalities, then, different tones. Now choose a sports story. Read how it's covered by The Sun, The Guardian, the BBC online, a fanzine. Each will present a different emphasis, a different selection of facts; each will use slightly different vocabulary, syntax, even punctuation.
All these tiny editorial decisions add up to a distinctive tone of voice. You might think that reporting is a more tone-neutral business, but in our training we frequently find that trainees can guess the source of an anonymised news story. Now think of a market you know well personally and look at the sites of two competitors. Compare Virgin Finance and Legal & General, for instance, or Boden and Figleaves, or Asda and Boots. How do they sound? Warm and chatty or cool and detached? Laconic or breathless? Professional or wacky? If each site was a person, which would you rather spend time with? Which do you trust more? These are all questions about brand, of course, but more specifically these are questions about the quality of the language on these sites. And where there is language, there is tone.
Online tone of voice – the icing on the cake
You'll soon notice that some big brands are much more engaging and communicative and helpful in their online language than others. But some huge brands no names still leave their brand values at the door when they step into cyberspace. They treat users with a disdain they would never countenance in their shops or their TV ads. Yes, tone matters, but many brands are still struggling with the basics, and the lack of a "distinctive brand voice" won't matter to your users if other things aren't in place. Things like whether the site actually works, how long it takes to load, whether they have what you want, whether you can find it, whether the product info is helpful and comprehensible, whether it's in stock, in what colours and sizes etc. Oh, and how much it is. What matters most online is usability. Copy has a huge say in this too, in crucial, fundamental ways that all too often get overlooked by the brand clinics and the tone of voice workshops. Online, the most positive experience of your brand you can give users is to provide the information they need as quickly and helpfully as possible. So before you start worrying whether you are a brand that says "Xmas pressie" or "Christmas present", make sure you're getting the language basics right first.
Get the little things right
Pay attention to all your microcontent all the signposts, buttons, headlines, calls to actions, links and other little information cues that actually get people round your site. Do they make sense? Or are they still written in the developers placeholder jargon ("activate purchase process")? Are your descriptions distinctive or do you "deliver solutions" like everyone else? Is the rest of your content written for the web? Is it in plain English? Are you talking about benefits rather than features? Is your content structured and organised for easy scanning? Do you talk in empty marketing clich's or provide credible product details and useful supporting information? Information is love, as the man said. How much do you love your customers? All these little things make a huge difference to your customers and users, and they tell them a great deal about you're like. Most of all, they want to know you're interested in them. Simply choosing to write "Five ways we can help you" instead of "Products & services" tells me a great deal about your brand.
Developing tonal guidelines
Now, with the web writing basics in place, you can start looking at tone of voice proper. The standard way to think about this is to take your brand values and translate them into a list of adjectives or "tonal values". We've seen hundreds of these documents, and you wouldn't believe the number of brands that consider themselves to be warm, human, professional and the rest. Apart from the obvious problem that these lists of utterly distinctive tonal values all sound exactly the same, there's the additional issue that no one really knows what they mean. One copywriter's "simple" is another's "patronising". How do you translate a tonal value like "authentic" or "quirky" into language? What would a "non-human" brand be like? We once wrote a piece of copy for a high street bank targeting students; the brief was to be "edgy". The copy came back with a red line through a word that the client considered totally inappropriate. That word was "funky". These are important issues because you need to be able to roll out your tone to everyone involved in working on your content. A strong tone has to be applied consistently, otherwise it will never be distinctive or engage anyone. You can't rely on a single person who is the unofficial "guardian of the voice". They're always the first under the proverbial bus. So look for ways to define your tone more descriptively, with guidelines that say how you speak but also how you don't ("eg authoritative but not bossy") provide examples of your tone translated into real sentences give examples of how to get it wrong show how your voice differs from your competitors ("it's on tone if x wouldn't say it") say what you want a user to come away thinking or feeling Then think about all those little editorial decisions that affect your tone too. Do you write in British or American English? Does your content need to be written for ease of translation? Do you write "don't" or "do not"? Can you use slang? How much technical or specialised knowledge do your target readers have? Do you do humour? If so, what kind? Puns? Jokes? Black humour? It all adds up to something more distinctive.
Five ways to take your tone to the next level
1. Run a reality check Run your language past your customer-facing staff. They are the people who know how your customers actually speak. In fact, they're probably the best place to start
2. Be appropriate There's no point coming up with a sexy, youthful, contemporary kind of tone if your brand is all about being reassuringly traditional and reliable. Personally, I want my bank to sound boring and formal, not burst into song-and-dance routines. That's my money they've got.
3. Find a champion None of your tonal development work will count for anything without the will and the clout to see that it is implemented across your organisation. Training and ongoing assessment are crucial here.
4. Walk the middle way Make sure your target audiences don't fight each other. There's no point in wowing the young, trendy urbanites with your grasp of street slang if the same content is also aimed at your growing customer base of international commuters.
5. Tones within a tone You may have different areas of the site aimed at distinctively different audiences. You can respond to this by emphasising different elements of your overall tone of voice within each area. This is extremely subtle work, and only has a chance of succeeding if fleshed out with lots of real examples and communicated smartly.