Should you have an internal tone of voice as well as an external tone of voice?

Working in a team

Every now and again we speak to new friends in various corporations who say: “Ah, but that’s our external tone of voice. Our internal tone of voice should be different.”

So should your organisation have one tone of voice for customers, and a different tone of voice for colleagues?

The short answer to this – in our opinion – is a resounding, no.

The longer answer goes like this…

Is your employer brand different to your customer-facing brand?

This is an important question to ask – because tone of voice is, of course, a brand asset. A good tone of voice should be rooted very firmly in – and consistently express – your brand personality.

Want to know more about tone of voice? Check out our FAQs here.

So a fundamental question here has to be – is your external brand different to the one you use to engage colleagues, bring everyone together behind a purpose and propagate your company’s culture?

We don’t think it should be.

So, for example, imagine a customer-facing brand that is all about “radical transparency”. The brand should be the same inside and out. It can’t claim to be radically transparent to customers – and then be exposed for having less-than-transparent practices going on within the organisation itself.

Of course, the brand’s internal and external audiences have different needs. So externally, “radical transparency” might be the brand revealing exactly how much profit it makes on each item it sells. Internally, the same transparency might translate into approaches like everyone’s renumeration and conditions being published.

So if your customer-facing and employer brand is the same thing, why would your tone of voice be different?

It shouldn’t be, is the simple answer.

So why do some organisations end up with two approaches to tone of voice?

However, some organisations do end up with two separate tones of voice. But we think the reasons for this have more to do with personalities than with the needs of the brand.

Let’s imagine for a second that we’re back inside the “radical transparency” corporation. Their tone of voice might have initially been developed for external audiences only. (We don’t recommend this, by the way – because we think strong brands speak to all their audiences in the same way, and that includes internal ones.)

Their tone of voice is approachable – in a sparse, economical way. This is a tone that never uses 10 words when two will do nicely. The effect is pacey and fast. It cuts through, getting straight to the point.

However, internally, no-one has been paying any attention to language. All the radical transparency brand’s job ads sound generic. Their policy documents sound like they could have been written by any legal team. And intranet posts are a veritable jumble of styles and approaches.

Then someone internally – perhaps someone in an HR or internal comms role – says, “This tone of voice thing – we need one of those. But we need it for our employer brand… which is different.”

Only the internal brand isn’t different – or it shouldn’t be.

HR teams are highly inclusive – and they can feel very uncomfortable about short, sharp approaches to language

What we often find going on in these circumstances is a team of lovely people who simply don’t like the idea of communicating in a short, sharp way.

“We can’t – we have to be friendly, warm and approachable,” is often the refrain.

So the “external” tone of voice is rejected and a different approach instituted internally – often with these characteristics:

  • A less economical use of language – using at least six words where two would do the job perfectly
  • Use of words like “ensure” and “enable”
  • Lots of exclamation marks
  • A lot less getting to the point

The “internal tone of voice” usually isn’t – strictly speaking – a tone of voice at all. It’s more like a generic way of being nice.

Does it hurt to have two approaches to tone of voice going on in one organisation?

Honestly, yes – we think it does. It just doesn’t make sense for an organisation to spend serious money on creating and deploying a brand tone of voice, but then having all internal-facing communications written in another way.

For one, it sends out the wrong signals. It kind of says that the brand is simply a selling tool, rather than being a code and purpose that the whole organisation can get behind. And because of this, it misses a significant opportunity to propagate brand-aligned culture.

Then on top of this, two competing styles will inevitably dilute one another. Partly because the two approaches will mix… and partly because if there are already two approaches, why shouldn’t individual writers and content producers throw their own special flourishes into the mix too? Before you know it, there’s a bit of a muddy mess to sort out.

So how do you reconcile the needs of internal and external communicators?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Before you start creating a tone of voice, consider both internal and external needs

At the start of a tone of voice project, while we’re still finding the lay of the land and auditing existing communications, we usually speak to representatives from across the organisation – including marketers, senior managers, lawyers, customer service people, internal comms people, PR people, HR people and often many others. We get all of their views and thoughts before we go on to make recommendations – because if we didn’t, we might end up with a tone of voice that’s seen as being something that’s for customers only.

  • Make sure the tone is flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of circumstances

Tone of voice has to be flexible. Because you really don’t want to write to someone about their upcoming disciplinary procedure in exactly the same way that you write a marketing email. Can’t wait to see where you’re going wrong? Let’s get to the bottom of it in your disciplinary procedure on Wednesday!

Tone of voice is personality expressed in words – and just like any personality, it should have the ability to rein itself in a bit in more serious circumstances. We do this when we create tone of voice, using a device we call Volume Control®. You can read more about it here.

If you give your tone of voice flexibility, you’re more likely to find that there’s a sweet spot within the range of flex that works well for your colleagues internally.

  • Train people outside of the marketing team

Sometimes – either through limited budgets, or budget-holders simply not seeing the need – the only people considered for tone of voice training work in marketing.

However, if you extend training to colleagues working in more internal-facing roles, they’ll see how to make it work for them.

And as ever, if you’d like to talk to us about tone of voice, copywriting or training, please give us a call.

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