Who owns tone of voice – and does it matter?

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When Wordtree first opened its doors, the conversations we had about tone of voice were exclusively with directors of marketing and heads of brand.

Professionals in brand and marketing were always the people who oversaw the creation of tone of voice. They were the ones who persuaded colleagues in other teams to adopt a new tone of voice, to set aside budget for tone of voice training and to adjust processes to accommodate it.

Tone of voice, in other words, belonged to the marketing department. They owned it and the buck stopped with them on all matters relating to it.

In the past couple of years, however, when we get an email or call about creating a new tone of voice, it’s just as likely to be from an HR professional as from someone working in brand or marketing.

Why is ownership of tone of voice shifting?

Language is a powerful thing. Used and deployed thoughtfully, it does far more than make communications interesting, understandable and persuasive (though, of course, it does this beautifully). It can also provide a fundamental means of defining culture – and then reinforcing it with continuous and consistent use.

Here’s an example. If you want to get rid of silos in your organisation, it can be really difficult if different technical teams all speak different technical languages, and focus inwards on specific technical approaches. Where silos exist, it’s not unusual to have, for example, IT teams focusing narrowly on the capabilities of a system, while their colleagues over in regulatory risk and legal are focusing instead on the letter of the law. And in each case, people’s self-worth and identity are – at least in some part – built on their technical strength and expertise.

The silos hamper cross-functional cooperation and productivity. And to break them down, you may decide to take a change management approach to refocus everyone’s efforts on a shared goal – like, for example, customer centricity.

Some people might not like the idea of changing how they currently do things – though most will agree in principle. For a short while, everyone will try to repeat the right phrases. But then, when the excitement of the new strategy has worn off, things will slip back to how they were before the change project happened. People will nod sagely and say: “Yes, well, people don’t like change…” And that will be that. In theory, most will know that “customer centricity” is a thing. Yet barely anyone will know how to make customer-centric thinking part of their everyday working practice. And it will all be chalked up to “fear of change”.

However, if instead of simply explaining a theory to your colleagues, you give them something they can put it into practice with every day, you’re far more likely to succeed. This is where tone of voice comes in. A solid tone of voice should be deeply rooted in your organisation’s brand and aligned to its strategic objectives. So if the organisation is looking to become more customer-centric, then its tone of voice should personify this approach.

Then when you train teams to use it, you’re not simply showing people to communicate better (although they will, which is a bonus). You’re also getting your colleagues to put a strategy into practice every time they write anything. Which means every time your colleagues sit down to communicate, they have to actively think about making their writing more customer-centric. Which means using customer-centric language. And because language and perception are strongly connected, the more a team uses customer-centric language, the more the team will think about customer centricity… and the more it will start to frame its thinking and actions in customer-centric ways.

So by changing the language in an organisation, you inevitably change its culture. What starts as an initiative about communicating quickly ripples out to encompass everything from process and systems, through to product design.

This is why tone of voice has become so interesting to HR professionals. Rolled out well, it changes culture. And it’s usually a way more cost-effective way of doing it than calling in change consultants. As a bonus, everyone ends up a better communicator too.

So where does this leave brand and marketing?

Sometimes, there’s a thought in organisations that the “marketing” or “external” tone of voice is the fluffy one – the one that’s fine for customers, but not fit to do the heavy lifting of cultural change.  So in addition to an existing external tone of voice, they develop a separate, internal one too. We think this is a bad idea, for a number of reasons that we set out recently in this post.

Brand and marketing still has an excellent claim to tone of voice. It is, after all, a fundamental brand asset. And importantly, brand and marketing has a long experience of persuading people to change the way they think and act. And at a more brass tacks level – marketing teams already have processes and expertise in place to monitor communications and give feedback and support on them. HR professionals typically don’t have either.

Which isn’t to say we think HR should butt out of tone of voice. Far from it. HR has easy pan-organisational access and can more easily factor tone of voice into development plans and assessment criteria.

The most successful, culture-changing tone of voice roll outs we’ve driven have featured strong collaboration between different teams, with sponsorship from senior leadership.

A steering group or working party can be a useful way of facilitating this collaboration – with roles and responsibilities clearly assigned. It can be a great way to get senior managers to share expertise and perspectives, jointly powering a tone of voice project along.

And does it matter who owns tone of voice?

It certainly matters that someone – or a team of people – is accountable for the success of a tone of voice roll out. Without ownership, any project is less likely to succeed. But does it matter who owns it?

We think collaboration is key. We work with brand teams that report into HR, rather than into marketing. And we work with companies where marketing has as broad a reach across the organisation as HR. Both functions can – and do – support one another. And we believe that in the future, tone of voice will be practised more as a cross-functional discipline. Language, after all, is used by everyone in an organisation. And to leverage it as a resource, it makes sense to take a cross-functional approach.

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