Can you implement a tone of voice without training?

tone of voice training

We’ve been asked this a few times lately. Budgets are tight. Teams are keen – and have often studied English to a high level. So why not skip the training part? Because if the guidelines are good, shouldn’t they be enough to roll out a new tone of voice?

Here’s what we think about how you roll out a tone of voice – and whether it’s a good idea to try rolling out tone of voice without training.

This is a long response. But if you’re really interested in rolling out a new tone of voice across your organisation, it’s worth reading. If you want to jump ahead, here are the subjects we cover:

If you’re new to tone of voice, check out our FAQs. They set out how we define tone of voice and our approach to creating it. You might also find our tone of voice training FAQs useful.

Rolling out a new tone of voice

When you create a set of tone of voice guidelines, what you have is a tone of voice broken down into its constituent parts. To make sure that everyone who needs to use it can do so, we almost always recommend training. In fact, we advise our clients to not even share tone of voice guidelines with teams until training has happened.

However, over the past couple of years we’ve had increasing numbers of conversations which have amounted to: “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you. You make more money out of us if we pay you for guidelines AND training. And if you need to train people, doesn’t that mean your guidelines aren’t good enough in the first place?”

Team in tone of voice training session

We get it. Teams are under intense pressures to cut costs and to justify every penny they spend. But we’d rather not take on a tone of voice project at all if training isn’t seen as part of the process. It’s simply because we think there are only very limited circumstances where a guidelines-only approach wouldn’t be a colossal fail.

When could you successfully roll out tone of voice without training?

If the only people who will ever create – and sign off – text and content for you are professional copywriters with agency experience, you may be able to get away without training.

A professional copywriter is someone whose job title is “writer” or “copywriter” – or it might have the word “content” in it. These are people who understand marketing. They understand how your customers make decisions. They’re skilled at making complex ideas feel easy and entertaining. They’re great ideas people and communicators. 

The agency experience is important too – because it means that at some point in their career, they’ve had the experience of swapping between tones and writing in several different voices, maybe all in one day. This experience – and ability – means they’ll be less likely to be thrown by being asked to write in a different way. They’ll also be more likely to understand the reasons why they’re being asked to do it.

If you have a team like this – either working for you in-house, or at an agency – and you limit the amount of feedback and sign-off their work is subjected to, you may not need to train them to use a new tone of voice. 

The most likely scenario for this is an FMCG brand that’s only concerned about copy on packaging, a small website and social media updates with limited text – all of which are being fulfilled by an agency and signed off internally by an experienced marketer.

It’s also a scenario where the phrase “roll out” isn’t completely accurate. “Rolling out” suggests you’re getting a whole organisation to adopt a change. The situation we’ve set out here is more about sharing with a very small number of people.

In pretty much all other circumstances – and certainly where a large-scale roll-out is planned that will involve people who’ve never had previous commercial writing training or experience – training is a must.

A note on sign-off

The experience of your writers is not the only consideration in adopting a new approach to communicating. The people involved in sign-off are equally – and sometimes more – important too. They will have to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, and why they’ll need to work differently. If they don’t, your writers could adopt the new tone, only to have it changed back by the people who sign off their work. They’ll soon learn not to use the new tone, and you may as well not have bothered trying to make a change.

All this means that if you work in any kind of regulated environment, you will not be able to roll out a new tone of voice without training – even if you have the best and most flexible copywriters in the world working for you. This is because your colleagues in legal and compliance will need to understand why communications are changing and what’s now expected of them.

But all our teams are really keen for this!

We hear this often. But the thing to remember is that while your teams may be keen for change, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that they will want exactly the changes that your tone of voice guidelines set out.

So they’ll select which bits they approve of, which bits they understand – or maybe even which bits they think they’ll be able to get signed off. If your tone of voice has any creative elements, you can be sure that fear of sign-off will guarantee that they are barely, if ever, adopted.

People who write need training. People who sign off need training or awareness sessions. Senior leaders need one-to-one coaching.

Aren’t we making this sound way more complicated than it needs to be?

The thing is, there’s training and there’s training. In the corporate world (where most of our clients go to work every day), you might have to go for training on something like anti-bribery and corruption (ABC). Each year, you do an ABC update and you find out about the latest best practice in keeping your organisation on the straight and narrow.

This is no criticism of ABC training – it’s really important stuff. But it’s a factual update. People going for ABC training know and accept that they shouldn’t take bribes and shouldn’t expose their organisations to risk in any way. They’re there simply to make sure they know the latest ways of getting this right. So they listen to a presentation, answer some tick-box answers and then they’re good to go for the next 12 months.

Then there are things like learning to use software. The people attending know they need to be able to use it. They spend an hour or two going through generic examples so they know how to create a spreadsheet function, or upload content – or whatever else the software allows them to do. They ask questions their trainer can easily answer, because learning to use it necessitates learning a set of rules about commands and outcomes.

Getting people to change the way they communicate isn’t the same. Because changing the way you communicate isn’t just about getting a factual update, ABC-training style. Nor is it about learning how to use a new tool, like you might in software training.

Instead, altering the way you communicate is about changing fundamental behaviours and beliefs. To get your whole organisation to adopt a new approach to communicating, you need to think about tone of voice as a behavioural change programme.

Why it pays to treat tone of voice as a behavioural change programme

Remember right at the beginning of this post, we said that tone of voice is a direct expression of personality? This means that when you’re asking people to change the way they communicate, what you’re really asking them to do is set aside deeply personal beliefs and practices that are hardwired into the ways they work.

If I had a tenner for every time someone has said any of the following to me at the beginning of a training session, I’d be living it up on my own Caribbean island by now:

  • My teacher said you can’t do that
  • You can’t start a sentence with “and”
  • But it doesn’t sound formal enough
  • You wouldn’t get great marks on an MBA with this approach
  • I have an A-level/degree/masters in English, I think I know what I’m doing

By the end, of course, everyone gets it and is taking part in exercises using the new approach. But the point is, people often feel very strongly about the words they use and the rules they’ve learned about them. They feel nervous when you suggest it’s ok – and in fact, better, in a commercial setting – to use language in ways that are different to the ones they already know.

So you need to reassure, and you need to explain why. You need to show that precisely because language expresses personality, it can be shaped to great advantage by the company they work for. You show that by using language differently and communicating differently, you can help an organisation to stand out, to be trusted and to be preferred. You show that the ways language is used internally can build, dilute or destroy culture. 

And this is what makes tone of voice training such a great deal. Because when you train your teams to adopt a new tone of voice, there’s no other way to do it than to explain how the new tone of voice:

  • Is directly linked to achieving business goals
  • Is rooted in your brand
  • Shapes relationships with customers and other audiences
  • Gives you more agency in your writing – which, ultimately, makes the work more enjoyable

So when you successfully train tone of voice, you can’t help but get people to understand and buy into:

  • Brand-aligned culture
  • Customer centricity
  • Their personal role in delivering your company’s goals

In other words, tone of voice training doesn’t just give your organisation much more powerful, brand-aligned communications. It also gives you teams who feel more deeply connected to the organisation they work for, who understand how to live its values and provide exactly the kind of experience you want your customers to receive.

On top of that, because they’re learning these things as the reasons for communicating differently, they’re reminded of them every time they communicate.

A couple of years ago, we worked with a client on a tone of voice roll out involving about 2,000 people. He sent us this in an email afterwards:

I still can’t believe how profound the effects of the training are. It’s still snowballing. We haven’t just changed our communications (although they’re so much better now and they’re getting great responses); we’re also changing some of our processes because we know they’re getting in the way of us delivering the service that’s required to back up our brand promise. I thought we’d enjoy the tone of voice process, but it’s been life changing!

Language expresses personality, transmits facts, conveys culture… and is inextricably linked to thinking

Sometimes, at the beginning of tone of voice training workshops, we ask participants to tell us what language is for. It’s a deceptively simple question. And quite often, the response we get is: “For communicating.”

And when people say this, what they mean is the act of getting an idea out of my head into your head – or transferring a fact. Language, of course, is very good at helping us to do this. But what makes language such a valuable business tool is that it does a lot more besides.

Language and thinking are flip sides of the same coin. You can’t think – or at least you can’t conceptualise – if you don’t have words to articulate your thinking. The inverse of this, of course, is that you can’t use words if you can’t think.

Language and thought are inseparable – and you can’t change one without changing the other.

What this means is that you can’t change the language an organisation uses without simultaneously changing the way it thinks.

And because of this, language is also a powerful vector of culture. Words and phrases spread culture in the same way that a mosquito transmits malaria. As an example of this, we often get our clients to think about these two words:

  • Staff
  • Teams

If you use the first word to describe the people who report to you, you’re suggesting a more hierarchical culture – perhaps where there’s a perception of “them” and “us”. If you use the second word, you’re conveying a culture that’s flatter and more inclusive.

One simple word can have a deep impact on the way people feel valued and regarded by an organisation. So it stands to reason that by considering all their words, organisations can create even deeper cultural impact.

So what happens if you simply pass your teams a tone of voice guideline?

Being asked to communicate in a different way is an emotional experience. We find people generally respond in one of three ways:

  1. They feel a faint sense of dread and think, “Oh no, someone’s going to mark my English”
  2. They feel a sense of “harrumph” and think, “I’m pretty good at this, let’s see what this lot have got wrong…”
  3. They completely avoid – they’ve seen initiatives of all flavours come and go in their organisation, after all, and they’re sure this is just a passing fad too

The first two are not surprising. For most people, their only experience of having their writing scrutinised has been at school, university, business school or secretarial college. So it’s natural to slot yourself into the role of “pupil” or “teacher”.

However, neither of these roles is particularly helpful in a commercial environment. “Pupils” don’t feel confident enough and doubt themselves. “Teachers” can – with the best of intentions – derail your tone of voice because they simply want to replicate approaches they excelled in at school.

The third scenario is understandable too. Large organisations are full of bright ideas that have a moment and then fizzle into the background, never to be heard of again. And you have colleagues who systematically avoid all that’s new because, to them, it seems a phenomenal waste of time learning things that they’re not going to need to know in a few months’ time.

So if you simply hand over guidelines to your teams and ask them to get on with it, there’s a high likelihood that they’d split off into one of these three camps. Your “pupils” may feel overwhelmed. Your “teachers” will try to change your tone of voice to what they think is “correct”. They may also try to correct the writing of their “pupil” colleagues. And guidelines that don’t come with training, discussion and follow-up are extremely easy for the third group to avoid.

Training at an early stage helps to get rid of these dynamics. Tone of voice training introduces a level playing field – and helps to get “teachers” on side so that they don’t undermine their colleagues, or indeed, the tone of voice itself. It also gives “pupils” the confidence to try. Avoiders meanwhile, may need to be coerced into attending – but they can become your strongest advocates when they understand in training that there are solid commercial reasons for changing the way they communicate.

If you’re not planning to train people, it’s probably not worth developing a tone of voice either

These are the key things we try to impress on our clients when they first talk to us about creating and rolling out a new tone of voice:

  • Changing the way your teams communicate needs to be thought of in terms of behavioural change
  • To be successful at it, you need to think of a programme of learning and support
  • You also need to be prepared for tone of voice training to have deeper effects – it’s not unusual for teams to want to review processes and approaches after tone of voice training

As ever, if you’d like to talk about tone of voice, tone of voice training or communications training, you know where we are. You might also enjoy this post on embedding tone of voice.