Struggling with tone of voice? This might be why…

I was beginning to think that people were really getting tone of voice. When I started creating them in the early 2000s, you’d always have to explain why language was so important to an organisation – and how shaping and owning language is as powerful (if not more powerful) a brand asset as design.

However, in recent years, it’s not a conversation I’ve had to have so frequently. People have heard of tone of voice now. They get what it is and they know the steps they need to take to create one, roll it out and embed it.

But over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen some approaches that aren’t working – and, in my opinion, can’t ever work.

So if you’re in the process of creating a tone of voice right now, here are some things to avoid…

The one-pager

Your brand guidelines are there – 20, 30… maybe 80 pages of them. And then tucked right at the back is one single page on tone of voice. It sets out extremely high-level aspirations but often gives no specifics and no examples.

Vague definitions

You need to remember that any kind of guideline is an instruction manual of sorts for the professionals you want to bring your brand to life. Your visual brand guidelines would never just say: Use red. Instead, they give a very specific shade of red with RGB and CMYK references. Your guidelines for language should aim for similar levels of specificity. “Friendly” for example, is not a helpful tone of voice reference. Why? Because we’ve all got different versions of “friendly”. To get the result in writing that you want to see, be more specific. “Professionally friendly” is more specific. “Friendly in a reserved professional way” is better.

Ignoring the mechanics

The vast majority of unusable tone of voice “guidelines” that we’ve come across have been created by people who don’t really understand the mechanics of language. They might understand brand. They might understand design. But until you understand how language works as a system, you are going to be unable to translate a desire for a “dynamic*” tone of voice into the actual, hands-on language devices that will make your copy fast-paced and interesting – and have your reader feeling that your organisation has an exciting buzz about it. And that means your guidelines will be open to a wide range of interpretations – and you’ll be frustrated when the writers you’re working with fail to turn in exactly the tone that you have in your head. A useable tone of voice guideline should contain information on ideal sentence lengths. It should specify types of vocabulary. It should set out grammatical approaches and when to use different parts of speech.

Being elitist about language

And of course, a tone of voice guideline needs to do all of the above simply – so that anyone can read it and replicate the approach. We’ve seen guidelines that have been constructed by people who understand the mechanics of language – but who have been unable or unwilling to explain what “the passive voice” is, and who use words like “gerund” and “adjectival”. In other words, they’re written by language snobs in language jargon. And what’s the point of a guideline if it isn’t accessible and usable?

Failing to include examples

Your tone of voice guidelines need to be packed full of examples, with full explanations. You need examples from all areas of your business, and covering both serious and light-hearted situations.

Failing to build in flexibility

This happens a lot in FMCG tone of voice guidelines – or when an FMCG approach is applied to other sectors. In it, you get a very excited description of how a brand should “talk”. However, the only situation the creator of this tone of voice is thinking of is a supermarket shelf. These voices are bright, chirpy, often cheeky. They’re jostling for attention and shelf stand-out. But this approach to tone of voice falls apart in any situation that’s more serious. We build flexibility into tone of voice using a device called Volume Control®. You can find out more about this in our tone of voice book.

Of course, if you want to discuss tone of voice with us – and have us create your tone of voice or look at your guidelines and see how they could work better – please do give us a call.

*Please don’t use “dynamic” as a tone of voice characteristic. Get more specific. Do you mean bright? Faster? Energetic? Enthusiastic? What kind of bright? Intellectually bright? Dazzling? How do you dazzle? When do you dazzle? What does your dazzle feel like? Get specific.

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