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How To Create Your Company’s Tone of Voice

September 4, 2017 - Mark Newton

We all speak differently, right? We each have a different tone of voice. Though we all use the Queen’s English (most of the time), there are different dialects, little quirks and phrases unique to us – or given to us by our parents or friends. And there are accents, too, though that’s a little harder to capture as text (without things turning into an Irvine Welsh novel).

We might not realise it at the time, but these little quirks help to define our character. Our friends and relatives get an understanding of our personality by, among other things, the way we speak – how and what we say. The same thing applies to companies in the modern world. A fancy billboard sign pimping some new ad slogan just doesn’t cut through the clutter today. Our communications are everywhere, from email signatures and Twitter posts to above-the-line marketing messages and campaign taglines.

But if you’re about to embark upon a big digital marketing campaign or look to reinvigorate your brand, establishing how you speak is one of the fundamental considerations. There’s nothing weirder than seeing someone suddenly change how they act and speak – such as becoming the joker of the pack – as it can create a real dissonance for consumers.

Why is a company’s tone of voice important?

Your tone of voice is an essential aspect of communicating your company’s personality. But for many, your tone of voice probably isn’t a consideration. It’s an after-thought. The way a company presents itself becomes simply the amalgamation of its staff writing in different ways on different platforms, with individual personalities defining how that company sounds.

And herein lies the problem.

You are, in a manner of speaking, all over the place. Flip this around to imagine what your customers are experiencing. Different styles of writing, different ways of being, different answers. It can muddy the waters of who you are and the experience you give to consumers.

Having a good tone of voice in place gives you:

Consistency in how you speak – offering customers the same experience with your company.
Character for your company – something that gets you noticed.
Confidence for your staff – when they’re writing brochures or blogs, they know the rules.

Tone of voice in action: Tatler vs BBC

Tone of voice is a lot easier to establish in the world of media publishing. Magazines, for example, will have a particular house style, a list of dos and don’ts. A style guide, perhaps, in which the laws of language are laid down. They’re inherently editorial organisations who live and breathe this world of language and often have a long pedigree of establishing a strong and consistent tone of voice across all of its communications. A fun game (well, to me) is to stand in a newsagent and just look at the way magazines present themselves. Look at the headlines or first lines of copy. You’ll start to get an eye for how they each have a different way of expressing themselves.

I want to highlight good tone today by looking at the world of media, and examine how a different tone changes the approach and emphasis on a generic subject such as holidays.

One of my favourite examples of a stand-out tone of voice is Tatler magazine. Let’s contrast one of their recent travel articles with something similar on the BBC website. One magazine behaves like it’s glamorous and carefree, the other is a more rudimentary news site that eschews any flair in sacrifice for providing easily accessible information.

Tatler’s Guide to the best family holidays in 2017 vs BBC’s Where’s hot? This summer’s most popular family hotspots.

Let’s glance past the headlines – those are mostly going to be fine-tuned for SEO benefits. We’ll roll into the phrases used throughout.

Here’s Tatler’s way of speaking in the intro:

“Tired of looking for a holiday? Our guide to the best family holidays for summer 2017 is here to help. You will drink cold rosé while the kids don’t really bother you very much but are nonetheless having a wonderful time.” [Emphasis mine.]

And the BBC:

“For some of us, holidays are becoming more than just a chance to relax in the sun but the chance to experience something different – and this growth in out-of-the-way travel is playing a vital role in many countries’ economic development.” [Emphasis mine.]

Key Tatler examples:

“It’s family-run and smart as a pin, with armfuls of bushy-tailed staff, a cracking kids’ club (courtesy of Scott Dunn), various pools and a don’t-care- if-they-throw-a-wobbler attitude that’s supremely relaxing.”

“There’s a barbecue, a party tent with its own bar and dressing-up box, and a firepit, around which you can sit late at night, looking at the sky (come in August for the incredible shooting stars), drinking wine and smoking joints (although that’s illegal, so don’t). Plus wooden kitchen cabins with every amenity you might need, and a shower block to wash the smell of wood smoke and wildflowers from your hair.”

Key BBC examples:

“The travel agency’s customers are predominantly 20-somethings, many of whom are taking a gap year, after finishing school or university.”

Reflecting their customers’ demands, the firm which started out as a publisher, producing a guidebook on the top UK boutique hotels, now organises tailor-made travel itineraries for its travel club members.”

“The pound’s fall, which is still down around 15% against the dollar since last year’s EU referendum, has had a clear impact on holidaymakers’ choices with trips to Mexico and South Africa boosted by the relative weakness of their currencies.”

Some key differences in these two examples of a tone of voice include:

• Tatler is endlessly more fun and emotive.
• The magazine uses adverbs and adjectives in a more exciting and evocative manner – things are incredible, bushy-tailed or wonderful.
• In fact, Tatler uses longer, more complex sentences with plenty of clauses.
• Tatler uses plenty of humour, whereas the BBC limits itself.
• The BBC uses lots of one-sentence paragraphs, making it easier for most people to read on a screen.
• The BBC is drier and more factual – the audience is here for news, after all, and not entertainment.
• The BBC is minimalistic – few adjectives and adverbs in comparison to Tatler’s sassiness.

It’s also worth dwelling on how much the subject matter is essential to the tone of voice as well. Tatler has deliberately selected locations that fit in with the Tatler lifestyle, which differentiates it from any ordinary publication, and uses decadent imagery to accompany the article. The concept of glamour and luxury cut through the whole piece.

Switching channels

I’m going to run with Tatler just that little bit more because tone of voice isn’t limited to one channel. It goes across all of them – including Twitter.


The important thing to add here is how headlines on social media can contribute massively to your online personality. If you have one thing to get people’s attention, it’s headline copy. If you have one thing to get across your personality, it’s in all those snippets on social media. (Innocent smoothies is the often-quoted example of a company that uses social in a highly characterful manner.)

Here, Tatler gets slightly clickbaity but dials up its humour and cheekiness. It also plays to the medium, dropping in all-caps or the occasional emoji. But essentially, what it’s talking about is still going to appeal to the audience.

In fact, this is the great thing about Tatler. Their tone of voice directly appeals to a glamourous, educated, wannabe-hedonistic and predominantly female audience who want to escape busy lives to inhabit something more luxurious. Tatler is an inspirational friend to that target audience. It writes for them.

What should I consider when creating my company’s tone of voice?

We’ve spent many a workshop helping companies to polish how they should speak (we can help you too, let us know), but here are a few things to think long and hard about when constructing your tone of voice:

• Who is your audience? Who are you talking to and what would they want to hear at the different stages in their online journey?

• What content should I be creating to appeal to this audience’s desires (desire, over need – needs are basic things that presumably you already address, but it’s the extra stuff, the nice things, that lead to the character with respect to tone).

• What type of person is my company? Perhaps this is the biggest consideration of all. If your company was a person, who would that person be? How would this character dress? Would they travel first class, Tatler style, or slum it with the hoi polloi like the rest of us?

• What words correspond with that type of company character you’ve created – what adjectives would that person (your company) use to speak to its friends (your audience)?

• Would your company character use long sentences or short and snappy sentences? Would you be informal and use word contractions? (So, would you say “we’ll or you’re” instead of the more formal “we will or you are”?)

• Would your company use slang?

All of this helps build up a picture, which is the first step into formalising your tone of voice.

Do it with style (guides)

Everything we’ve looked at above is something to record in an internal document. List the dos and don’ts. Get some rules down – some guidelines for anyone writing copy. What this does is give staff a blueprint for how to speak in your company’s tone of voice. They’re not stifling rules, and can be as in-depth as you want them; but what they do is provide your customers with a consistent, characterful experience for your company.

We can create simple guides – reference sheets for clients – but we can also create much more in-depth style guides, which are perfect to bolster your existing brand guidelines.

Get in touch with us if you’d like to know more about how to work on your tone of voice and develop your brand’s online style.

 

 

Mark Newton
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