Finding Your Tone Of Voice

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When creating content for the Web, considering tone of voice is important. Your tone can help you stand out from competitors, communicate efficiently and effectively with your audience and share your personality.

What Is Tone Of Voice, And Why Is It Important?

Tone of voice isn’t what we say but how we say it. It’s the language we use, the way we construct sentences, the sound of our words and the personality we communicate. It is to writing what logo, color and typeface are to branding.

When we speak to others in person, our non-verbal communication says more than the words themselves. Non-verbal communication consists of facial expressions, tone, cues, gestures and pitch. Online, we lose of all of these except tone. We can imbue our Web copy with a tone that is distinct, clear, consistent and relevant to the target audience.

You can’t create a strong and effective user experience without language. And tone of voice plays a big role in this by doing the following:

  • Differentiating you from competitors,
  • Showing your personality,
  • Helping you gain and retain customers.

Here are some snippets of content from the “About” pages of well-known brands. You can see how each has its own unique and appropriate tone of voice.

Starbucks

“To say that Starbucks1 purchases and roasts high-quality whole bean coffee is very true. That’s the essence of what we do — but it hardly tells the whole story.

Our coffeehouses have become a beacon for coffee lovers everywhere. Why do they insist on Starbucks? Because they know they can count on genuine service, an inviting atmosphere and a superb cup of expertly roasted and richly brewed coffee every time.”

American Express

“Each day, American Express2 makes it easier, safer and more rewarding for consumers and businesses to purchase the things they need and for merchants to sell their goods and services. An engine of commerce, American Express provides innovative payment, travel and expense management solutions for individuals and businesses of all sizes.”

British Airways

British Airways3 is a full service global airline, offering year-round low fares with an extensive global route network flying to and from centrally-located airports.”

Disney

The Walt Disney Company4, together with its subsidiaries and affiliates, is a leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise with five business segments: media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive media.”

Each of these organizations has its own voice. The formality of Disney’s voice might be surprising, but despite the fact that it sells “fun,” Disney is still a massive corporation. You need a voice that is true to your company’s culture and values. As Aarron Walter5 says in his book Designing for Emotion6, “To engage your audience emotionally, you must let your brand’s personality show.”

How To Find The Right Tone

You need to have a lot in place before getting started, and the process needs to be embedded in the project. It’s more than about just cobbling together a few sentences. Tone of voice requires careful decisions based on the company’s values and personality.

You might need to adjust your process to find the right tone because each project has its own constraints and deliverables. But research is key, and it could include the following:

  • Interviews with stakeholders,
  • Content audits,
  • Brand reviews,
  • Audience research.

Interviews With Stakeholders

The key stakeholders are usually the decision-makers, so engaging them and getting them involved is essential. Your interviews with them needn’t be restricted to tone of voice, but they should include it.

Give them enough time to say everything they need to say, but keep the discussion focused on three of four major topics. You might want to ask what they think how the company sounds like to others and how they want it to sound. It is also chance to find out which voices among competitors and other organizations they like or dislike. Asking how they view their position in the marketplace would be valuable, too.

Don’t let them focus on what they think the solution should be, though. They need to tell you their problems; solving them is your job. The stakeholders should be concerned with their culture, business objectives and reasons for initiating this project. You could also send them your list of questions or an agenda before the interview so that they are not caught off guard.

Keeping the interviews informal would also help. The more comfortable the stakeholders feel with you, the more honest they will be.

Content Audits

A content audit can be a project in itself, depending on how much content you are dealing with. By reviewing all of your current content, you can see what the tone of voice is and then ask later in the research phase whether it is relevant. Reviewing the content relative to the tone should be done carefully, though. If new content is being written, then the people responsible will need guidance on what tone to adopt.

This is also an opportunity to assess whether the tone is consistent across all of the content. Perhaps your social media channels and corporate brochure vary in tone, but do they still sound like your company?

Speak Up!7
The voice should be essentially the same, regardless of the platform. Image source8.

Research

Tone of voice is one part of a brand, so it needs to be considered as part of the big picture. The tone needs to fit the visual identity of the company, too. A formal, corporate-looking brand identity paired with a casual and chatty voice wouldn’t be coherent. Reviewing the brand, including typefaces, colors, language and imagery, will help you determine the most appropriate and authentic tone.

Stakeholder and Client Research

Who will be “listening” to you? Getting input from stakeholders is helpful, but these people usually aren’t the target audience. Any research you invest in the audience will be time well spent, even it it confirms what you already knew. Only when you know the audience will you be able to tell whether the tone of voice is appropriate.

This is all about asking questions. Gather information, and then draw insights from it to find out what works and what has to change.

If you are part of a team, then take time away from email and the phone to have a dedicated session about tone of voice. As a team, ask these questions:

  • What is our personality?
  • How do we sound to others?
  • How do we want to sound?
  • Are we authentic?
  • Who are we targeting?
  • How can we keep our voice but change the tone?

The team could also create mood boards related to how it views the company. These could reveal whether these insiders all view the company in the same way.

Getting everyone on board is important because if the team understands the tone of the company, then it will be able to communicate it consistently. In large organizations, certain stakeholders will likely need to be involved in this process, with the guidelines communicated to everyone else.

You might have to face some hard truths about who you are during this phase. Perhaps you want to be very informal but your industry doesn’t allow it. The key is to be honest. All of the information you gather from the questions above will start to paint a detailed picture of who you are.

You can then narrow down to more specific questions:

  • Should we use jargon?
  • Can we use humor?
  • How informal can we be?
  • What punctuation should we use?
  • What do our competitors sound like?

One final question not to be ignored is, “Who are we engaging with?”

Audience Research

Your tone of voice has to communicate who you are to the target audience. But what if you have different audiences?

Your tone has to suit the brand, no matter who you are talking to, and this in turn will result in a good user experience. When addressing investors, you might find yourself sounding corporate and business-like. If a segment of your audience is younger, you might change your tone to suit it. Don’t. This immediately prevents you from being consistent, which means you aren’t being authentic, which is critical.

The change will happen at the level of content. The tone will stay the same, while the content will be adapted and refined as needed. Your message might be serious, but that doesn’t mean you can’t say it in a friendly way.

If you are a company that builds things, you could say this:

“The diversity in our department enables us to be innovative and creative, resulting in revolutionary, ground-breaking and immersive experiences for our target customers.”

Or you could say this:

“We build awesome products that our customers love.”

Going through these processes will have yielded a lot of data and information. The challenge now is to decide what’s right. This will be complicated by diverging opinions, and you will need buy-in from the stakeholders.

With a full understanding of the company’s challenges, personality, brand and target audience(s), you’re in a strong position to determine what the tone of voice should be. Any decisions you now make will be backed up by data.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the decision-makers either. They hired you for your expertise after all. Showing examples of their current tone and the proposed new tone will help. Stakeholders often think they sound a certain way when in fact their tone is very different. They might have trouble admitting this, but they can’t argue with cold hard data, and all of the time you’ve spent on research and auditing will support your decisions.

Once the tone has been decided, write down guidelines. The tone of voice might be a part of broader branding guidelines. If not, then put something together that informs everyone in the organization what you should sound like.

Showing examples is best. Include before-and-afters, and even list words to use and words to avoid if needed. If everyone on the team understands the tone, then they will help to keep it consistent, especially if you have more than one content creator.

Different Tones

MailChimp9 has taken its guidelines a step further by putting them online for all to see, on a website named Voice and Tone10. The website makes clear through examples, tips and descriptions of feelings exactly how to achieve MailChimp’s tone of voice in all areas, including apps, social media, the main website, the blog and internal communications. The same approach and presentation could be used for printed guidelines, too. Tell team members how to get the tone right, but also show them.

Here are some pages from “Voice and Tone”:

Voice And Tone 111
Content types on MailChimp’s “Voice and Tone”.

Voice And Tone - Freddie's Jokes12
Voice and Tone13 explains the jokes of MailChimp’s mascot, Freddie.

Voice And Tone - Failure Message14
An explanation of how to write failure messages.

If the project allows you to have fun with the design and language, then you can get quirky or adopt a tone that others in the marketplace would shy away from. There’s a fine line between coming across as fun and quirky and coming across as unprofessional or snarky.

If you are in the legal, government or banking industry, then going the informal chatty route might not be appropriate, because you will need to appear trustworthy and professional to customers. Would you bank with a company that sounded like it wanted to have fun all day? I wouldn’t. I work hard for my money and want it to be looked after.

Your tone can still be friendly. The key is to be credible, because the worst thing you could do is try to sound like someone else or be something you are not.

I was at a local arts and literature festival recently, and one of the slides that was shown before each talk said this:

Turn Mobile Off - Standard

The tone of voice here was true to the spirit of the festival, making it authentic, and it was noticeable in other signage, making it consistent. It suited the personality of the festival and appealed to the audience that attended. The tone wasn’t negative (“Please turn your phone off”), which is the approach most commonly taken by cinemas, theaters and airlines. Instead, you were asked turn your phone back on after the talk, on the assumption that you had already turned it off. The bonus of asking you to share news of the session encouraged further positive behavior.

Given the nature of the event, the tone could have been complemented with more personality in the visuals. Something like:

Turn Your Mobile Off - Personality
The tone is the same in both graphics, just presented in different ways.

How Others Do It

Let’s explore the personality and tone of voice of some well-known brands and organizations. Some get it right, others less so. Let’s take a look at Ben & Jerry’s15 website:

Ben & Jerry's Subpage 116
Ben & Jerry’s presenting the various flavours they have available.

Tone of voice doesn’t work in isolation here, though. Illustrations, bright colors, a scrapbook feel, sans-serif fonts, animation and a lot of cows all support the friendly, fun and relaxed tone of voice.

Compare that to this more sophisticated and formal home page of the White House17:

The White House Homepage18

As you’d expect, Ben and Jerry’s and the White House have very different tones of voice, but they are appropriate for what they are and fit their personalities.

The White House’s website has a traditional color palette (a patriotic combination), a serif typeface, photography rather than illustrations, and a formal and professional tone of voice.

Authenticity And Consistency

While this is getting into other design elements, note that tone of voice can dictate the personality of everything else on the website. It shouldn’t be tacked on at the end of the project through a few tweaks to the copy. It needs to be considered from the start so that it can be communicated precisely at all times.

Ben & Jerry’s and the White House get it right. Each has found a tone that suits it and represents what it is.

But we often learn more from those who do it wrong.

Let’s take LOVEFiLM19, an online film and game rental service, for example. With this service, you create an account, add films or games to a list, choose a subscription package, and then receive your selections in the mail. No late fees, no deadlines, no return postage costs.

I’m a subscriber, and the service is excellent. The tone of the website is not. LOVEFiLM provides entertainment, something fun to help users relax and escape to another world. Its tone of voice should reflect these values, e.g. by pushing the boundaries by playing on famous film quotes and titles. Instead, its personality is very middle-of-the-road.

LOVEFiLM Home Page20
LOVEFiLM’s home page, lacking in personality

The content and tone don’t prevent the user from achieving their objective — it is clear, for example, where to sign up for a free trial — but the tone is boring and formal. Saying something like, “Want free films for a month? Of course you do. Get started here!” would be much more appealing.

LOVEFiLM Sign Up Page21
LOVEFiLM’s unfriendly sign-up and sign-in pages

Again, the user knows what to do here, but the company could really engage users with a distinct tone of voice, building a fun personality and creating a better experience.

This is a big claim, but it shows just how important tone of voice is. If you invest the time to find the tone that best represents who you are, then you are being true to yourself; you’re being authentic. If you then communicate in that tone of voice all of the time, both online or offline, then you are being consistent, and you will positively influence how your organization is perceived.

By being authentic and consistent, audiences will understand your brand and have a good experience wherever they are exposed to it. They will recognize you, and your relationship with them will flourish. They will keep coming back because they feel an emotional connection. If you aren’t authentic or are trying to be something you are not, then their experience with your brand will be inconsistent, and they will see through you and find it harder to engage with you.

Your tone must lead the way at all times. So, find out who you are, and if that means facing up to some harsh truths, so be it. Perhaps you aren’t as fun as you’d like to be; that’s OK, as long as your tone of voice reflects that at all times. Being consistent and distinctive in a large organization is harder, but it is still possible.

The surest sign of a lack of authenticity is hearing stakeholders say, “We want to sound like Innocent.” Innocent22 is a company that make smoothies and juices and is well known for its informal and chatty tone of voice. Wanting to be like Innocent is fine if you have the same culture, values and personality. But most companies don’t, and they want to be like Innocent just because it has perfected its tone of voice and is regarded as a trailblazer for it.

Innocent Home Page23
Its quirky print advertisements shows a consistent tone of voice. Large preview24.

Innocent Print Advertisements25
Innocent’s friendly subscription box. Large preview26.

By emulating another company’s tone of voice, you won’t be emulating their success. Admiring the company and being influenced by its tone is fine, but you can’t recreate it because too many variables are at play, such as product, service, location and audience.

Is This The End?

No, it’s not. Once your content is live, don’t leave it unloved. Keep checking that the tone is relevant. Organizations change, perhaps not overnight, but over time; so, if your culture changes, then maybe the tone has to be adapted, too.

That might be a long way off yet, though. First, do an audit and see if your tone is right. If not, then a research and discovery phase will enable you to gather all of the information needed to make informed decisions.

At the fore of the decision-making process should be your culture, personality and audience. When you have determined the tone, apply it across the brand so that you establish authenticity and so that the user experience is consistent. Then, audiences will engage with you, feel an emotional connection and keep coming back for more.

What are your thoughts on the importance of the voice and tone? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!

(al) (il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.starbucks.com/
  2. 2 https://www.americanexpress.com/
  3. 3 http://www.britishairways.com/
  4. 4 http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/
  5. 5 http://aarronwalter.com/
  6. 6 http://www.abookapart.com/products/designing-for-emotion
  7. 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/53941041@N00/5540462170/
  8. 8 http://www.flickr.com/photos/53941041@N00/5540462170/
  9. 9 http://mailchimp.com/
  10. 10 http://voiceandtone.com/
  11. 11 http://voiceandtone.com/
  12. 12 http://voiceandtone.com/freddies-jokes
  13. 13 http://voiceandtone.com/freddies-jokes
  14. 14 http://voiceandtone.com/failure-message
  15. 15 http://www.benjerry.com/
  16. 16 http://www.benjerry.com/flavors
  17. 17 http://www.whitehouse.gov/
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/14.jpg
  19. 19 http://www.lovefilm.com/welcome/home.html
  20. 20 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/5.jpg
  21. 21 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/4.jpg
  22. 22 http://www.innocentdrinks.co.uk/
  23. 23 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/innocent-ads.jpg
  24. 24 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/innocent-ads.jpg
  25. 25 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/nl-innocent-footer.jpg
  26. 26 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/nl-innocent-footer.jpg

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Robert Mills is Studio Manager at Bluegg and author of Designing the Invisible from Five Simple Steps. As a journalism graduate and former BBC Audience Researcher he likes words and data, but mainly words. In the day job Rob shares design decisions with clients and explains the rationale behind them. Aside from the general tasks needed to keep a studio ticking over he's also chief proof reader and content ambassador for internal work and client work. He has also written for .Net Magazine, Think Vitamin and 24 Ways. He will write for coffee or Monster Munch but never for raisins or yoghurts with bits in.

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  1. 1

    Thanks for the article. I thought developing the tone was going to be the hardest part but writing in it is even more difficult. Any tips?

    • 2

      Hi Anne.

      I guess it takes practice and you’ll need someone who is the ‘guardian’ to the tone if the company is big enough, to ensure it remains consistent. By going through the process of developing the tone, you should gain enough of an insight to know whether to avoid jargon, be informal etc. Write, write, write and you’ll soon find that it comes naturally.

  2. 3

    Excellent article! The timing SM has some times amazes me… I just happen to be working on a new project where I have been thinking about how to nail the tone of it. This article is going to come in super handy for me. Thanks!

    • 4

      Glad you enjoyed the article James, though I can’t take credit for the timing. Hope you manage to nail the tone. Be authentic and consistent and you’re half way there.

  3. 5

    Solid read, and this is something a fair few online companies get wrong because they don’t even *think* about it. Copy is something that generally falls somewhere in between marketing and design, and in businesses where this issue is recognized, it’s often left to outsiders (copywriters) to fix.

    I’m a firm believer that writing copy should be a collaboration between the two aforementioned parties, as they hold the keys to both branding and company goals, and will be best equipped to protect consistency across all media outlets. It’s not just language, it all ties in with how you design, what colors you use, contrast, animations, all of it.

    Having said that…

    There are ways, and reasons, how/why you could *appropriately* break your regular tone-of-voice rules. As is the case with most rules, it’s the exceptions that prove them.

    Creativeness lies in the dreaded cliche of “thinking outside of the box”.

  4. 6

    The quality and relevancy of the journalism on Smashing blows me away every time. Excellent article Robert.

    Tone is such a delicate thing firmly based on the skill and intuition of the writer.

    I’m glad you repeated the word authenticity a lot throughout the article.
    Every so often I like to go back and have a read of “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, to remind myself of what a gift the web has been, driving authenticity back into corporate writing – “the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”

    • 7

      Hi Sonya,

      Glad you liked the article and thanks for your comment. Authenticity is key, as is consistency. Without those two things your tone will never be right or aimed at the target audience effectively.

      I haven’t read The Cluetrain Manifesto. It’s added to the list.

  5. 8

    A perfect example of the article’s subject is right at the top of the comments section.

  6. 9

    Wow! Talk about perfect timing. I too am working on several projects and “setting the tone” has been a topic I a had planned to look into.

  7. 10

    Thank you for an updated and thorough review and clear differentiation of all the components essential for defining voice and tone. It can be a challenge to illustrate those components for those not used to thinking this way, but you’ve done a masterful job for us. This approach is critical not only for new projects, but as a tool for managing websites and other message platforms that get updated and refreshed many times over time. Regular voice and tone checks help keep content consistent.

  8. 11

    I really enjoyed your article Robert and thanks SM for providing us such a great content.
    I am thinking to incorporate MailChimp type ideas in my new app.

  9. 12

    Thanks. I enjoyed the article. We definitely need to talk more about the brand voice and these points help. One point I would contend with however, is when consistency starts to sound too rigid. It’s the variation that brings a richer, deeper, human dimension. It breathes likable character too. That’s where skill comes in.

    And consistency across media is a difficult one. With the growing use of blogging and tweeting, it’s difficult to carry the formal brand voice over to that realm. Then you’re not being authentic — human and engaging with people. And, if you push the brand positioning/voice too far, you come off looking like a corporate drone, afraid to tell the truth. In social media, people look for that sort of thing just to see if you’re being genuine. This is where you find out what’s wrong with the corporate voice because you have something to contrast it with.

    How about another post on brand voice in social media?

  10. 13

    Nice job. Three quick random-ish thoughts:

    1) I’m not so sure it’s something you find, rather something you define, yes?

    2) “Keeping the interviews informal would also help. The more comfortable the stakeholders feel with you, the more honest they will be.”
    I see this myth / generalization differently. Just because they are more comfortable and open does not mean you will get optimal answers with regards to the business matter(s) at hand. Furthermore, perhaps informal is not the tone appropriate for the voice you want to define to the client? ;)

    3) Re: Authenticity And Consistency – Nirvana! I would have considered starting with this because ultimately this is the goal.

    p.s. The mega-company references are great. Obviously, they get it. I think a few (hundred) words on dealing with the less marketing / branding savvy would help. Especially on how to convince and train them on the importance of authenticity and consistency. And what about a couple thoughts on how how social media’s ease of use has convinced (too) many that toss sh*t at the wall to see what sticks is good for the long term growth of their brand.

  11. 14

    Robert, just posted a comment a minute ago but the email is incorrect, here is the correct one. Thanks

  12. 15

    I did a residential course with the guys from Wordtree a while back, using their book ‘Brand language and tone of voice the Wordtree way’ as the basis of the course material – a must read for anyone who is setting out to give their brand a voice.

  13. 16

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article, trying a few of the techniques myself on my new blog.

    zeroctrl.com

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