What tone of voice is… and what it isn’t (or shouldn’t be)
Every now and again, we get a call that goes like this:
Person representing organisation: “We need a tone of voice. We don’t have a lot of budget because we’ve already done all the brand work with a design agency. In fact, they’ve done some of the tone of voice already, so all we need you to do is the engagement piece – you know, just get everyone to buy into the brand and communicate in a completely new way…”
Us: “Err, OK. So tell us a wee bit more about this tone of voice…”
Inbox goes “bing!”. We open email from person on phone.
Us: “We can only see one page in this 275 page PDF that talks about tone…”
Person representing organisation: “Yes, that’s it – page 273 – that’s our tone of voice!”
Us: “This represents your brand personality?”
Person representing organisation: “Yes, it’s in our brand guidelines.”
Us (scrolling through PDF): “Could you point us to the section on your brand personality?”
Person representing organisation: “Our values are on pages 28-29.”
Us: “OK, oh right, you’ve got nine values? That’s, er… very inclusive. And no separate piece on personality, as such?”
Person representing organisation: “Correct, but I want to talk to you about tone of voice. That hasn’t really got anything to do with the brand. Could we concentrate on page 273 please?”
Us: “Erm, OK. So are you happy with where you’ve got to so far?”
Person representing organisation: “Yeah, it’s all great. The designers said our tone of voice is completely stand-out. The only thing is we’re kind of struggling a little to apply it to some of our more complex situations…”
Us: “For example?”
Person representing organisation: “Yeah, so our teams in customer acquisition are struggling a bit. And actually our marketing teams have asked for clarification. Oh, and legal doesn’t like it. Compliance says their wording needs to be treated separately. But basically, we’ve invested in this tone of voice and we don’t want it to be just a document that sits on a shelf gathering dust, you know?”
Us: “It’s a page…”
Person representing organisation: “Yeah, we don’t want it to be a page that sits on a shelf gathering dust. We want people to be engaged in it, you know? So we just think they need a little training.”
Us: “So you want us to find a way to make this work across all your communications, train your teams to use it enthusiastically – and get them to understand the brand and their role in delivering it in the process?”
Person representing organisation: “Yeah, we just need something like that.”
Us: “And have you had any thoughts on budget or timescales?”
Person representing organisation: “Well obviously, we’ve used all the budget on the brand, and we need it yesterday.”
So here’s the thing. We’re an organisation that’s pretty bloody good at creating tone of voice and getting teams of thousands of people to buy into the brand of the organisations they work for and to communicate and work in ways that are entirely brand-aligned. So clearly we have a vested interest here.
But one of the first questions we ask people when they inquire about tone of voice is: “What do you mean by tone of voice?”
Because to some, tone of voice is an opportunity for copywriters to write some quirky lines. For others, it’s making sure “correct English” is used. Others still share our view on what tone of voice is and should be – a means of having a whole organisation work and communicate in ways that are aligned with the brand. Or in other words, getting everyone to pull in the same direction.
So if you want your brand to become a way of working and being – rather than just a visual concept, here are a few things to think about:
What is tone of voice?
For us, it’s more than a one-page example that shows a style of writing you like or aspire to. Tone of voice is your company’s personality, expressed consistently in words.
When we start to create a tone of voice, we spend time talking to the teams you’ll need to use it. We review hundreds, if not thousands of existing documents – and then we give you recommendations, based on your brand, your business goals and the relationship you want to have with your customers or stakeholders.
With your input, we then create substantial guidelines, complete with examples from across your business, covering a whole range of circumstances. We also include guidance on how to flex your tone depending on the seriousness of the situation you’re communicating in.
Rather than a “one-pager” that a freelancer knocks out for a design company in an afternoon, we spend several weeks creating a robust, completely useable framework that will allow your organisation to convey your brand’s personality, values and messaging every single time. We’re strong believers that every communication is an opportunity to reinforce brand – which means that any communication that doesn’t reinforce brand is a missed opportunity.
Why is tone of voice important in corporate culture?
We can only train your teams to align their communications to your brand if they understand what the brand is – and buy into it.
So we start a tone of voice training session by talking about the organisation, its history and its goals. We ask participants to tell us what kind of an organisation they want to be working for – and what kind of an organisation their customers want them to be. Then we explore what that organisation sounds and talks like. By the end of the session, people leave with a fresh view of their organisation and their role in it. And they begin to communicate differently.
Because tone of voice is an expression of personality, it’s also very, very closely linked to corporate “behaviour”. Now, I’m not a massive fan of the word “behaviour” in this context because it sounds like you’re accusing people of being naughty, which in my experience is more likely to make people want to smack you in the teeth than get on board with their organisation’s brand. I prefer to talk instead about thing like, “the way we work” or, “the way we do our jobs”. But however you phrase it, it’s a different expression of the same thing. And that means that you shouldn’t be able to explore tone of voice without affecting the way people work.
This is why the consequences of rolling out a company-wide language or communications programme can include:
- Redesigning products and services
- Redesigning processes
- Restructuring teams
- Seeing productivity and satisfactions levels soar
- Seeing absenteeism drop
Why do these things happen? I think partly sometimes, because people finally have permission to go and do things the way they’ve wanted to do them for ages. I also think it’s easy to sometimes feel like you’re just a very tiny cog in a ginormous system – and that you don’t know what the company wants from you and that the company doesn’t know what you want from it. Yet when we begin to explore the brand and people’s roles in delivering it, there can be a renewed sense of purpose, a sense of connectedness to the organisation and what it’s trying to achieve – and a sense that each individual role is important in achieving those goals.
Another thing that happens is that because we shift the focus onto the customer, people begin to question everything in their organisation that doesn’t prioritise customers. Is that product even constructed in a way that customers will understand? Do we really need to include 20 people’s feedback here? Is our website too difficult to use? Do our job ads attract the right kind of people?
The ripples are big and powerful.
And of course, I think a major reason why corporate communications and the way corporations act and work are so closely intertwined: It’s because language and culture are inextricably linked.
It’s why the West’s most famous linguists – the likes of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Chomsky and Derrida – furthered the world’s understanding not just of linguistics, but of anthropology, sociology and to some extent, psychology.
Because of this link, you can’t change an organisation’s language without having an impact on its culture. You can’t change an organisation’s culture without having an impact on its language. Language is culture. Culture is language.
It’s why language is a barometer of an organisation’s health – siloed and fragmented, or all pulling together? And it’s why language can break down silos, build mutual understanding, create better relationships internally and externally – and be a force that brings everyone together.
Which is why your tone of voice guidelines can’t just be a page of excited one-liners. And it’s why you shouldn’t leave it until the last minute or give it to someone who isn’t a communications expert to do. (As I’ve said before – asking a designer to create your tone of voice is a bit like getting your wedding florist to make your cake.) Working in a similar field does not mean that you have transferable skills, or even the ability to know if something is working or not.
When you define the brand of your organisation, you have an opportunity to go beyond a nice letterhead. You have an opportunity to shape its language and culture.
So prioritise it. Set budget aside for it. And ask people who get language and culture to get involved.
If you’d like to read more about the way we approach tone of voice, have a look at our book.
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