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In developing a brand voice, many organisations make use of tonal values. This helps you work the different aspects of your brand’s promise into your writing.
You might want to be seen as experts in your domain, for example, but you also want your users to know you take customer service seriously.
So having a tonal value like ‘authoritative’ alongside another value such as ‘helpful’ can help you capture and project these different nuances in your comms.
Values enable you to flex your voice for different channels, audiences and message types. You might be a fashion-forward clothes retailer, for instance, so a tonal value like ‘inspirational’ might be an obvious choice in lots of contexts; on the other hand, when you’re explaining your returns policy, you probably want to dial up a different tonal value: ‘helpful’ perhaps, or ‘straightforward’.
When you look at lots of brand guidelines, you’ll see that certain tonal values tend to appear quite often. This is not necessarily a problem, as what really matters is how you explain and communicate what that value means for your brand.
For this you need detailed guidelines full of practical copywriting pointers, words to use and words to avoid, and lots of on-brand/off-brand examples that show how your voice works in different context, from a product page to a transactional email to a tweet.
All that is needed because writers can only get so far from abstract brand exposition; they really learn how to start using a voice by feeling the contrast between good and bad examples. Tone of voice guidance can also be consolidated by practical training sessions, regularly updated guidelines and the ongoing showcasing of on-brand work.
But while, in theory, any value could be made to work for your writers with enough explanation and illustration, choosing fruitful values in the first place will give your tone of voice development project a massive headstart.
Simply put, an effective tonal value should be able to credibly complete the sentence: ‘When we write or speak as a brand, we want to sound x’. Using this simple formula immediately throws into question many of the words that people like to choose as values for their tone of voice. Not brand values, I hasten to add, but tonal values.
What, for instance, does it mean to say: ‘We want to sound unique’? Or ‘We want to sound world-leading’? How do you train a writer to ‘sound innovative’?
So here, based on many years’ experience, are my top six problem values – followed by 11 tonal values that you might find surprisingly useful instead...
This value comes up a lot. It sounds a shoo-in at first glance but then again, what does it actually mean? And who would want to sound ‘inhuman’?
With a bit of digging, we can unlock the thought behind it, but when you’re trying to communicate something as subtle as a tone of voice, it pays to be a bit more instantly meaningful. Do you mean ‘approachable’? Or ‘warm’ perhaps? Either of these would probably work better.
Innovation might be an important part of your brand promise but ‘innovative’ is not for my money a useful tonal value. If I wrote every third word backwards, or developed a new font for our comms based on vegetable shapes, I could argue I was being innovative.
But I don’t think any of your users or stakeholders would thank me.
See ‘innovative’. Just telling people to ‘be creative’ doesn’t, funnily enough, actually tend to make them any more creative. What does creative mean anyway?
Perhaps you mean ‘playful’ or ‘quirky’ or ‘humorous’, but any of these values, while slightly more meaningful, would also require lots of explanation and illustration.
Also, if misinterpreted, they could backfire quite seriously (especially the one about humour, a notoriously subjective quality).
Along with ‘unique’, ‘exciting’ and ‘innovative’, this is more a description of what you want your organisation to be. This is more of a brand value or aspiration than a value for your tone of voice.
Along with ‘quirky’ and ‘funky’, this sort of tonal value often pops up when a brand – or its marketing department – is trying too hard to be something it isn’t.
I once remember a bank which said it wanted to sound ‘funky’, but in reality they were as risk-averse and compliance-led as many another financial institution.
"Try to sound funky."
Everyone in marketing wants engagement, but no one ever seems quite sure what it actually is. But whatever you mean by it, engagement is more an effect or outcome of strong content than a property of the writing itself – you may as well choose as a tonal value the words ‘quite interesting’.
Perhaps you mean ‘all our content should encourage users to interact with us’, or ‘no content should be published without a KPI in place to measure its effectiveness’. Both these statements would make strong planks of an effective content strategy, but that still doesn’t make ‘engaging’ much cop as a tonal value.
...and 11 tonal values worth a second look
So if those values are ones to think twice about, what tonal values are worth a second look? The real answer here, of course, is to conduct a robust tone of voice development process of your own, and come up with the words that best suit your brand.
That said, here are a few clusters of tonal values I’ve seen that I thought particularly effective. Often these values tend to be quite modest and specific, and they sometimes help to give writers ideas about how to approach messaging and structure too – both of which, of course, can exert a powerful tonal effect:
Direct / straightforward / down-to-earth / plain / transparent
The values in this tonal cluster all convey an oft-overlooked truism of marcomms: it doesn’t matter how fab your branding is, users just want their interactions with you to be simple and low-effort.
This deceptively sophisticated tonal value can be a real differentiator, especially in markets where claim and exaggerated counter-claim are the norm.
Information, not hype, is what sells, influences and engages online; a word like ‘calm’ can help ensure your content marketing doesn’t veer too far towards breathless marketese.
Constructive / positive / can-do
Values like these help to convey not just a tonal nuance, but also a mindset that’s about prioritising service, resolving problems, focusing on solutions.
Helpful / supportive
Much transactional online copy is dull or robotic in tone. Including a value like ‘helpful’ or ‘supportive’ in your tone of voice can help lift those bits of text that rarely get much attention but are actually vital brand touchpoints, such as error messages, confirmation emails, form text and returns policies.