18 May 2022

Create a ‘tone of voice’ for your business in 10 minutes

Guides & explainers
When we’re crafting scripts for a client brand, one of the things we have to consider is the tone you’d like to speak in.

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a tone of voice document to guide us, but often we don’t.

It’s why we’ve put together this guide – to help you quickly identify how you want to come across. You could even take what you learn here and use it to create new consistency in your written communications.

But first, let’s cover some of the basics.

 

What is a tone of voice document?

It’s a written document that forms parts of a business’s brand guidelines.

These guidelines set the standards for things like logos, colour palettes, typefaces (and so on) that are followed by designers and others, to ensure the branding is consistent (and consistency in branding is very important).

While those things make up the brand’s visual identity (what it looks like), the tone of voice bit outlines the brand’s verbal identity (what it sounds like).

Each brand’s tone of voice (or ‘way of speaking’, if you prefer) communicates to the world what the brand is like, and what it believes in. Or you might say, its personality and values.

 

Why do brands have a tone of voice document?

They’re a useful tool for businesses with multiple people writing on their behalf.

Take Coca-Cola for instance – they have lots of different people writing their commercials, campaigns, website, and so on, all over the world. The tone of voice document is the guidance these people follow to ensure that every piece of writing ‘sounds’ like it’s come from one hand.

The idea is to ‘personify’ the brand, and make it feel like you’re speaking as an individual (rather than a faceless corporation); there is lots of research to suggest that younger people, in particular, are mistrustful of corporations, and this is a response that seeks to counteract that mistrust.

 

When should you write in your brand tone of voice?

Whenever you’re writing something that isn’t from you as an individual, but as ‘the business’.

If you have any of these that are branded in your company name and colours, they should be written in your tone of voice:

  • Website
  • Social media channels
  • Adverts and commercials
  • Newsletters
  • Automated letters and emails
  • Brochures, leaflets, and product literature
  • Packaging
  • Signage and instructions
  • Other printed items (like menus and receipts)

And lastly, in scripts to be performed by a voiceover artist (which, of course, is where we come in).

 

Do I need a tone of voice document?

Not necessarily. If you don’t have a tone of voice document, don’t worry – the vast majority of small businesses don’t, because they often have only a couple of people doing all of their writing.

Even without one, we can help ensure the scripts we write for you sound authentically like ‘you’, if you give us some guidance on tone.

Just let us know a score (from one to five) on each of the following four scales (adapted from the findings of user experience researchers Nielsen Norman Group). And once you’re done, you’ll be able to take what you’ve chosen and apply it everywhere; it won’t be as in-depth or developed as the tone of voice guidelines you’d get by hiring an expert, but it’s a start!

 

Scale 1: Formality

Before we forge on, it’s important to clarify that formality is not the same as seriousness – every business can talk about serious things. The question is: how do you talk about them?

Ask yourself how ‘proper’ your business is. Formal writing is very polite, often uses sophisticated or technical language, and is likely written in the third person (like ‘PHMG is an audio branding business’).

Casual writing is more familiar, uses more accessible vocabulary, and is written in the first person (like ‘We’re an audio branding business’). If you use contractions and slang, like ‘Won’t’, ‘Nope’ and ‘Kinda’, this is also typical of more casual writing.

Compare the formal ‘Good afternoon, how do you do?’ with the somewhat casual ‘Hi, how are you?’ and the very casual ‘Yo, what’s up?’. These are all the same way of saying the same thing, with a very different tone.

How formally you write can help to establish the relationship between you and your reader. Are you equals, maybe even ‘working together’ like friends? Or are you working on your customer’s behalf, in something more like a master/servant relationship? A more casual tone will establish a more equal relationship, while a more formal one will establish some boundaries and a sense of hierarchy.

There’s a general trend towards somewhat casual tones in sectors like banking, insurance, legal services and investments, which the Average Joe may understand less about; it’s a way of ‘demystifying’ these industries and making them accessible to everyone (which, in turn, is good for business, because more of the market feels confident about doing business with you). Good examples are the app-based banks Chime and Monzo.

 

Scale 2: Respectfulness

Here, we’re asking how edgy your brand is. Is it more like a first-grade teacher or a rockstar?

Dignified brands are those which treat the subject with respect and warmth. By contrast, irreverent brands might treat the subject matter with less respect, poking fun at norms and even taking a sarcastic tone.

In some instances, brands might even be less respectful to their reader (on the basis that they trade on a certain machismo or counter-culture image; good examples are Harley-Davidson and Brewdog). But it’s important to note that it won’t just be their tone of voice that establishes this.

Two bikers sitting on Harley Davidson motorcycles, with the headline 'Don't wannabe'.

Harley-Davidson is demonstrating its irreverent side in this ad, created by Saatchi & Saatchi.

Brands with a more irreverent tone might instruct their audiences exactly what to do (or what not to do); ask rhetorical questions; and may even resort to offensive language.

Dignified brands are more likely to gently encourage action in their audiences; ask genuine questions; and would never use offensive language.

 

Scale 3: Humour

How seriously are you taking your topic? We’re not asking you how professional you are – everyone wants to sound professional. But are you fun to work with? Is everything you say earnest and from-the-heart? Do you aspire to leave people smiling and laughing, or simply reassured and relieved?

How seriously you take your topic doesn’t have to be defined by how serious your industry is. We’ve even seen some funeral providers use humour to break the ice about the sombre topic of death.

In fact, many start-up brands have realised that they can use humour to create a point of difference and disrupt the market, particularly among Gen Z and Millennial consumers who have different priorities, fears and desires to older consumers.

One recent example is British car insurance start-up Marshmallow, who have played with the wording typically used in personal accident claim commercials for their latest campaign:

Funnier brands like Marshmallow are more likely to use wordplay and puns, and perhaps use punctuation creatively to add emphasis (like ‘Bright. Pink. Billboards’).

And of course, perhaps obviously, they’re likely to crack jokes – usually at their own expense, but maybe at the expense of others (depending on where they sit on the Respectfulness slider).

 

Scale 4: Enthusiasm

Emotional brands clearly and strongly communicate their feelings about an interaction or their product through their words – you can probably think of brands that try to get you excited about their product or service (often using lots of describing words like ‘great’, ‘best’, ‘quickest’, and so on, to help influence the way you feel about it).

On the other hand, matter-of-fact brands present information in a more to-the-point way, leaving you to assess the moment or product for yourself.

We should clarify that this doesn’t mean matter-of-fact brands are tactless or boring; ‘laidback’ is probably a better way to describe them. Imagine you’re seeking out information; if you’re presented with an answer in an overly enthusiastic tone, it could seem patronizing or too-good-to-be-true.

It’s for this reason that even some of today’s funniest and most casual brands are more matter-of-fact in their enthusiasm; it speaks to a desire to ‘cut through the bull’ and respect their reader’s intelligence. The result is a less ‘hard-sell’, more honest-feeling brand.

 

Considerations when deciding on a tone of voice

Your selections on each scale will help contribute towards your brand’s overall ‘persona’; thinking of your brand like a person can help you decide whether you’ve achieved the right tone.

If you thought of your brand as a Servant, you’d maybe choose a tone that’s Formal, Very dignified, Very sincere and Very matter-of-fact. If you thought of your brand as a Clown, you might decide on a tone that’s Very casual, Very irreverent, Very funny and Very emotional.

These are extreme examples (there’s a good chance you don’t want to be thought of as either a servant or a clown). So, as with many things in life, it’s about striking the right balance.

Maybe you’d like your brand to be thought of as a friend, a teacher, or an authority figure (like a judge or boss). Or maybe you like the idea of being a rebel, a magician or an inventor. Ask yourself how they would behave, and use this to inform your choices.

We can help you define and reinforce your persona through the tone of voice you choose. So, if you’re not sure the best way to go, our writing experts can help you decide.

Wondering what your tone of voice would sound like when performed by a voice artist?

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