Your company or brand’s tone of voice is the framework that determines what you say, and how you say it, in your written communication. It is a crucial part of your marketing strategy and, as such, it will come as no surprise that discussing tone of voice gets complicated almost immediately.
Should your tone of voice be consistent across all your written material, from your social media to your website through to your advertising campaigns? Instinctively, it feels right to say ‘yes’ – otherwise what’s the point of bothering with a tone of voice at all?
But if your brand’s tone of voice is particularly extreme – for example, Innocent Drinks or Paddy Power – then you might not want to produce your corporate material in the same tone of voice. Would you prepare an operational document, or your annual report, in that same tone of voice? We’d suggest it is unlikely.
Instead, most brands have two tones of voice: one for its customer- or client-facing marketing material, and another for its corporate documents and publications. When people talk about tone of voice, they’re normally referring to the public-facing tone of voice. Given that the ‘corporate’ tone of voice is likely to be similar across the vast majority of companies and brands, it is the public tone of voice in which we are most interested.
So tone of voice is the term for a series of guiding principles that determine how your brand’s personality is communicated to customers or clients.
How does tone of voice work?
Your tone of voice will work best if it is an honest, accurate representation of your brand’s best or strongest qualities. You shouldn’t determine your tone of voice and then try to mould your business behaviours to fit: instead it should portray the personality of your business and reflect your core values.
According to user experience experts, the Nielson Norman Group, tones of voice can be measured by four different dimensions: serious vs. funny; formal vs. casual; respectful vs. irreverent; and enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact. Think of each these as a sliding scale. A tone of voice could slot in at any point along that scale.
When you have determined where your brand sits along those scales, you will have found your tone of voice. It will then be relatively straightforward to steer decisions over word choice and writing style.
For example, if your tone of voice is formal, you’ll be unlikely to use contractions, slang or start sentences with words such as ‘and’ or ‘but’. An irreverent tone of voice, on the other hand, is likely to use more colloquial, provocative language.
Consider the impact of tone of voice in this example of the same message written for the different ends of the serious vs. funny scale:
- We are sorry to hear you are unwell. We sincerely hope you get better soon.
- Still ill? Get well soon so we can make fun of you again and not feel bad.
Why is tone of voice important?
By speaking with a consistent tone of voice, you make it easier to solidify your brand in the minds of potential customers or clients.
There is an established link between familiarity and trust. In his 1979 book Trust and Power, Niklas Luhmann (1979) argues that familiarity is a precondition of trust. “Trust is only possible in a familiar world; it needs history as a reliable background.”
If your communication is consistently inconsistent, varying in style, tone and message, then your customers or clients will find it hard to become familiar with your brand. It may only be at a subconscious level, but they might struggle to define exactly what you stand for and could be less likely to fully trust your products or service.
But when your tone of voice is consistent across all internal and external written communication, you build a track-record of repeatedly delivering the same experience to your audience. This leads to a feeling of trust on your audience’s part: when they see your brand, they know what experience to expect. In effect, familiarity and a consistent tone of voice combine to remove the first layer of suspicion that a customer or client might have when they are looking to buy your service or product.
A strong tone of voice can also distinguish you in the market, marking a clear point of difference between you and your competitors.