Imagine going to your doctor because you have a pain in your side and it won’t go away. You’re concerned because you don’t know what’s causing it. You wait eagerly for the doctor to come in because you know exactly the reassuring, pragmatic interaction you’re in for, and you expect them to be calm, direct, understanding, and professional. You’ve been to this doctor many times throughout your life, and this is the way it’s always been.
But when the doctor comes into the room, they’re temperamental, angry, wacky, and flippant. In fact, if it weren’t for the seemingly accurate diagnosis delivered between snarky comments, you might confuse your doctor with Dr. House.
An important observation: Even if the advice was completely sound, not only is this experience unpleasant, it’s disconcerting because your doctor’s voice and tone aren’t consistent with your expectations, and they’re a mismatch to the context of the situation.
The same rules apply when it comes to your content, which is every word you put down on paper about your business—from your blog to your brochure to your brand name. If you don’t adhere to a set of voice and tone guidelines, how can you stay consistent? And if you aren’t consistent, it will be a lot hard to get prospective customers to recognize and trust you.
Your voice is the unique way you communicate. Think about your family doctor again. Who they are and the way they talk is their voice or personality, which doesn’t change. When you write content for your brand, your voice shouldn’t change either.
Your tone varies depending on the situation and audience. Imagine the same doctor talking to you when they’re delivering good news vs. something more serious, and they’re trying to comfort you. Their voice is the same, but their tone is different. If their tone didn’t change, you might think to yourself, “Do you actually care about what I’m going through right now?”
Just as the consistency of voice and a context-appropriate tone shape your perception of your doctor, the voice and tone of your brand impacts how people perceive it. The word authentic gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but this is one of those make-or-break moments where both authenticity and consistency are everything.
Are you funny or serious? Formal or casual? Or somewhere in-between?
Why You Need a Voice and Tone Guide
Understanding your brand’s voice and tone is crucial to connecting with your audience. Whether you’re writing social media posts, sales materials or 404 errors on your website, you need to think about the content type, your reader’s emotional state of mind, and how you want your customers to feel. If you don’t have a distinct voice and tone, or the tone you use is inappropriate for the message type, customers won’t understand who you are, what makes you different, and whether they can trust you.
Let’s look at South West Trains as an example. They use the copy on their 404 page to try and turn a frustrating and confusing experience into one that is helpful and shows their personality.
They could have used a generic message with a serious tone, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Even though a 404 page may seem like a minute detail, the more thought you put into the way you speak to your audience, the better chance you have at connecting with them.
I like to think of a Voice and Tone Guide as a map. Before you head out into the woods, every person in your group should get an idea of where they’re going by looking at the big picture and think about what will happen if and when they encounter certain situations. Before you start writing, you should consult your Voice and Tone Guide to steer you in the right direction. If you don’t have a guide to reference, how can you know what direction you’re heading?
It’s important to modify your tone based on your audience as represented by a great persona, medium, and content type. Again, one of the best ways to make a situational adjustment without losing the core of your voice is through referencing a guide that acts as your North Star.
Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee state it well in their book, Nicely Said:
“…Think about your reader’s emotional state. Try to understand their frame of mind and talk to them where they are.
Find out what happens just before your message appears. Is this good news that will make readers feel happy, relieved, or excited, or is it bad news that will make them frustrated, angry, or upset? Will the message brighten their day, or put them in a difficult situation? Are readers prepared, or will they be caught off guard? These questions will help you decide how to write the message.”
Despite all the good that comes from doing the work of building a Voice and Tone Guide, I’ve come across a lot of brands who:
- Don’t have a Voice and Tone Guide
- Have a Voice and Tone Guide, but it’s collecting dust
- Have a Voice and Tone Guide that’s not relevant or useful
Let’s look at a real-world example to help. Here are two great illustrations of deliberate, on-brand copywriting from outdoor gear companies:
Poler Stuff makes gear and clothing “for people that have adventures all over the world wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers.” Their customers are casual, and should feel excited there’s a sale. Their voice and tone reflects that.
REI makes gear and clothing for people who love to get outside and understand the importance of quality and technical outdoor gear. They’re by no means formal, but they’re not quite as casual as Poler Stuff and it shows in their voice and tone.
Both of these companies know their target demographic and use a distinct voice and tone to connect with their customers. They understand their customers’ emotional state and write content to reflect that.
If either one hadn’t taken the time to clarify their voice and tone and had allowed someone new to craft these messages, it’s unlikely that either would align well with the rest of their content.
Similarly, having a Voice and Tone Guide makes working with agencies and freelancers easier. Think about how much time and effort you put into editing other people’s work. Sometimes you receive copy that’s well written, but just doesn’t feel quite right. There’s a good chance that’s because it doesn’t match your brand’s voice and tone.
I understand creating a Voice and Tone Guide or trying to convince people to use the one you’ve already created can seem like a time suck. You need to keep things humming along. You have content to produce and people counting on you to publish it. However, giving every relevant team member the guide and telling them to bookmark it so they can look at it before they write anything will make their writing stronger and shorten the editing process, which will save you time. And saving time will you save you money.
There are many different approaches you can take to create your Voice and Tone Guide, but one of my favorites involves two exercises which you can complete in just two to three hours. I’ve mapped them out below.
How to Create a Voice and Tone Guide
The first exercise is Brand Voice Madlibs and the second is a Tone of Voice Dimension. Keep in mind that your voice is a reflection of both how you think your brand communicates now and how you want it to communicate in the future. Sometimes these guidelines are aspirational, and that’s okay.
It’s important to do this as a group. Get a few people in the room so you can get a holistic view of what your communication goals are right now and come to an agreement on the goals you’ll move forward with. With one set of goals, you can make better decisions about how to talk about your products and how you educate your audience.
When you sit down with your team to do these exercises, it’s important to recognize there might be people in the group you typically look to for direction or answers, and people who think they have the answers, but you need to come to this as equals. For example, if you usually talk a lot, make sure you leave room for other people to share opinions. If you usually listen, challenge yourself to speak up. When you’re ready to speak, say what’s on your mind and don’t try to plan ahead to the next stage. Don’t overthink it. If everyone gets stuck for more than a couple of minutes, try to move along.
Brand Voice Madlibs
We have a list of examples of sentences below that reflect both the experience audiences have of your brand and the intention your company has in presenting your brand. Start by choosing 13 words. If you want inspiration for coming up with a list of words, I recommend ordering a brand deck from branding.cards. I’ve used them for voice and tone workshops with our clients, and they’re a great tool for figuring out who your brand is and is not.
After you have 13 words, go through a couple of steps to cut them down to the most important concepts and then fill in the blanks:
My brand makes me feel _______________________________________.
If a loyal customer described my brand in one word, it would be _______________________________________.
If a potential customer described my brand in one word, it would be _______________________________________.
Interacting with my brand encourages people to _______________________________________.
Example: take charge
Two words that describe the mission and purpose of my brand are:
_____________________ and ________________________.
Note: Look at your company mission and vision statements, if you have them, to choose words.
Example: empower and redefine
Right now, my brand is _____________________, ____________________, and _________________.
Example: fun, simple, and experimental
I want my brand to be _______________________, ____________________, and _____________________.
Example: sharp, daring, and clever
I don’t want my brand to be _______________________________________.
Next, copy the first 12 words onto note cards (1 word per card). Compare them against the 13th word to see if any are similar. If they are, remove them from the stack.
Look at all your note cards and group similar words, either by meaning or what area of your business they describe. Create three groups. Once you have your groups, choose the word that most embodies the meaning of that group (Or find a synonym that does it better. Powerthesaurus.org is your friend). Now you have three words you can use to describe your brand.
Tone of Voice Dimensions
Remember, identifying the tone you’ll use consistently in different situations or types of content will allow you to show empathy while remaining on-brand, and ultimately help you connect with customers. We based this exercise on the work by the Nielsen Norman Group on tone of voice words, which considers four primary tone-of-voice dimensions on a scale to help you determine the different tones you use.
For each of the four dimensions below, mark your brand somewhere between the two poles.
To make this as accurate as possible, don’t just sit down and take a guess. Read through content you’ve produced for different channels—your product or services pages, your educational / resource content, emails you send to your customers. Talk to your colleagues, especially the marketing and sales teams. Do your best to catalog what’s already there and choose your location on each dimension based on that and on how you hope to sound.
Once you’ve completed each exercise, put everything you’ve found into a template and create example text (good and bad) for each of the concepts. If you’re interested in completing this final step, we have the template in our new content strategy ebook, Plug and Play Content Strategy on page 33:
Once you’ve added all the information to the templates, you can have someone from your design team put the guide together and make it aesthetically pleasing. If you don’t have an in-house designer, you can make something that looks professional in Powerpoint or Google Slides and then save it as a PDF. This might seem unimportant at first, but remember that getting folks at all levels to use these guides is a huge part of the process. Make it appealing enough that they wouldn’t be embarrassed to hang it on their wall.
Although adding some professional-looking polish is a great step to getting people to use the guide, sending it out as an email attachment won’t be enough to get people to use it. Consider giving a presentation to show everyone the guide and explain how and when they should use it. Make it easy to find online (save it to a shared drive and encourage people to bookmark the link), give key players a physical copy. For bonus points, see if your CMS supports style guides, or find other places (where content is created or published) where you can digitally post this kind of guidance.
I hope these exercises will help you, your team or your clients create a Voice and Tone Guide which leads to content that is consistent, empathetic, and adaptable. But more than anything, I hope it helps you engage!