The sure way to do tone of voice

Tone of voice Wordtree

There seems to be a lot of buzz in the trade press about tone of voice at the moment. Which is great – because it means it’s becoming more mainstream.

But I don’t think the latest theory doing the rounds would actually work.

Tone of voice is about expressing a brand’s personality in its language, consistently, and appropriately in all situations.

This latest argument  – check out articles in Squidoo just this week – is that you make a tone of voice work by separating the “tone” and the “voice”.

The “voice” – the argument goes – is the personality. The “tone” is how you adapt it for different audiences.


Which is almost there. But not quite.

The old-stylee tone of voice guidelines – that were usually drawn up by designers rather than linguists – simply said things like: We are friendly and accessible! We don’t use jargon!

Now clearly, these gems of advice have limited use.

What kind of friendly? Accessible to whom?

There’s too much latitude for misinterpretation. Consistency goes out of the window, and ultimately, everyone goes back to writing how they used to. Which doesn’t help customers – and is a massive waste of everyone’s time.


Tone of Voice the Wordtree Way®

I think Tone of Voice the Wordtree Way® is more robust. It’s a system for tone of voice that works across multiple audience groups, across all channels and in all situations.


Define the brand’s personality

You start by defining the personality of the organisation.

Then you engineer the words to accurately convey the brand’s personality. It’s very like being a creative writer. Except a creative writer is in the business of finding and expressing their own voice, and the voices of their characters.

So when you pick up a Stephen King novel – or a Harry Potter story, come to that – the words just feel like they’ve come from the author. You can almost hear them speaking.

Creating tone of voice is kind of the same. But instead of finding your own voice, you’re finding the voice of the brand you’re working for.


Volume Control™

One of the things that rightly concerns corporate clients is how you can possibly take a single tone of voice and make it work at every level of their organisation. Sometimes the specialist functions – like the lawyers or researchers – will say, “Well that’s fine for marketing, but I’m writing contracts,” or proposals, or terms and conditions, or whatever.

This is where we use a device called Volume Control™. This allows us to regulate how much of the brand’s personality we allow “out” for any communication.

In workshops, I talk about how every individual moderates their own personality depending on the circumstances. So if I’m in a serious situation, I’ll be on the most reserved and polite setting of myself. Crucially though, I’m still me. I still use the syntax and quirks of speech that are as identifiable as my fingerprints. It’s just that – like most human beings – I tend to slow my speech down and speak in more considered sentences in serious situations.

At the other end of the scale – maybe after a couple of glasses of rose when I’m relaxing with friends and family – I let my personality out at its fullest volume. My sentences become shorter, my vocab more colourful.

When we create tone of voice at Wordtree, we always build volume control into guidelines and training.

It means you don’t have to faff around deciding on separate tones for separate audiences. And neither do you have to create separate sets of guidelines for every conceivable circumstance.

You just have to think, is this a serious occasion, a middling one or a celebration? You can have high volume headlines with medium volume body copy – or medium ones with low volume copy. It’s a very flexible and easy-to-use system.

So the lawyers can use low volume for terms and conditions – but hike it up a notch if they’re writing an email to corporate clients inviting them to a Christmas do.

Our brand language guidelines show how to turn the volume up or down with writing devices – which are different for different brands.

If you’d like to read more about how we’ve approached tone of voice for large global brands, you can order our book Brand Language: Tone of Voice the Wordtree Way from the bookshop at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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