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The way a person speaks is one of the first things people notice.
Soft-spoken, polite, enthusiastic, rude, dull: you can make an instant judgement about somebody based on how they communicate.
It is no different for brands. The way a brand speaks to its audience is extremely important, because that is how people are going to remember it.
But there are two major hurdles to overcome before you can achieve consistent tone of voice: first you need to decide what that tone of voice should be, and then you need to ensure everyone at the company adheres to it in all published communications.
In this post I’m going to cover the best way to decide on what tone of voice is right for your brand and audience and how to keep things consistent once you’ve found it.
I learned these strategies at our rather excellent Online Copywriting Advanced Training Course, which I'd highly recommend to anyone whose role involves writing for the web.
Define your voice
Before you can achieve a consistent tone of voice you first have to decide how you want your brand to be perceived. Do you want to be seen as lighthearted and fun? Strong and dependable?
The way you want your brand to be perceived should ultimately define the way you choose to communicate.
Take Innocent as an example. Its tone of voice is very playful and humorous, and this tone is present in absolutely everything it publishes, from its website copy to its content marketing to its tweets, and even the product information on its bottles.
This consistency of approach has enabled Innocent to build a strong brand that people instantly recognise.
But how do you decide what tone of voice is right for your brand? The best approach is not always obvious, but there are a number of ways you can come to an informed decision.
Ask your audience
You might assume your audience will appreciate Buzzfeed-style listicles and colloquial language, but if you haven’t actually asked them their opinion it’s dangerous to assume.
Developing audience personas is a great way to find out what your customers want, and one of the best ways to create a persona is through a survey.
It sounds incredibly simple, but just by asking your intended audience about the type of industry content they like you can get a feel for the tone and style that will resonate with them.
Consult the business
Once you’ve decided on the overall tone you want to go for, it’s time to start drawing up examples to share with the business so that you can collectively decide on the specific tone of voice.
I’m not suggesting you literally consult everyone in the company, but there should be a select group of people who help decide what the best approach is.
Think of this stage as being like fine-tuning a radio. I mean obviously you’ll have to use your imagination and go back to a time when radios actually had to be manually tuned, but you get what I’m saying.
It’s all about taking a general tone of voice and then tweaking and adjusting it until it reflects your brand in exactly the way you want.
Overdoing it vs. underdoing it
An effective tone of voice is all about balance. You don’t want to overdo it so it sounds like a parody, but equally you don’t want to sound flat and lifeless.
Let’s say your company sells energy drinks and you’re trying to appeal to men. So you decide to go for a stereotypically masculine tone.
You’re a man. Our product will make you feel not tired.
Harness the power of Zeus himself, thrust forth and burst your boundless energy over the world like the steel-balled stallion you are.
There’s a reason I’m not a millionaire ad exec, but you get the point. It’s all about finding the happy medium that projects your voice without alienating the very people you’re trying to sell to.
The best way to find the balance for your brand is to produce a few different pieces of copy, some in which you think you’re overdoing it, some at the other end of the scale, and some that fall roughly in the middle.
Show these pieces of copy to your select group of internal people and ask for feedback. From there you should be able to come to a group decision about what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to your tone of voice.
But remember, what is acceptable or not all comes down to the individual brand. One person’s overdoing it is another person’s ‘we need more cringe-inducing metaphors’.
Look at a company like Paddy Power, for example, which gets away with using very crude language and tone because it resonates with its target audience.
It's December, lads. Somehow, it's f*cking December. pic.twitter.com/j2pQI4SLbX— Paddy Power (@paddypower) December 1, 2015
Create a style guide
Once you have a defined tone of voice it is very important to record it in a detailed style guide, which is simply a set of instructions for anybody writing and editing content for your business.
The style guide should show anybody producing content for your brand what tone they should be writing in, what language they should and shouldn't be using, and so on.
It is also important to have a comprehensive guide in place so that anybody joining the business can get up to speed quickly without the need for in-depth training.
When I joined Econsultancy I was directed to our own style guide on my first day, through which I quickly learnt that using words such as ‘holistic’, ‘leverage’ or ‘learnings’ would earn me a swift flogging.
It only took me a short while to skim through the guide and absorb the main points, but it meant I could get straight to writing a post that I knew would fit with the general tone of the blog, with relatively little need to annoy my editor with endless questions.
A proper style guide might take a lot of up-front investment in time and resource, but in the long run you are saving a lot of hassle in terms of training new starters, guest bloggers, freelancers or anyone who needs to write something on behalf of your business.
Most importantly, however, you are protecting your all-important brand voice.
Conclusion: have a personality, but keep it natural
Think about brand tone of voice in the same way as an individual’s personality. Nobody wants to be seen as boring, but if somebody tries too hard to appear a certain way it is painfully obvious to those around them.
It is the same with brands. Don’t try to force your brand to come across in a way that is unnatural to both the business and its audience just because you think that’s the fashionable way to be.
Paddy Power can use the word ‘twat’ in a banner ad because it fits with its brand and target audience. But if a company like Microsoft did the same it would be a complete cringe festival.
Get to know your audience, work out the overarching way in which you want your business to communicate with them and then fine-tune your voice until the balance is right.