Why tone of voice matters and how to choose the best option for your business
Top tip for your business copy: make sure you the tone of voice right.
Is your business writing distinctive? Engaging? Consistent? When you’re taking the trouble to create marketing materials, a website or advertorial, the tone of voice you use is critical. This involves making critical choices about the language, sentence construction and even the personality we create to represent the business to the world.
Tone of voice – it’s personal
What is Tone of Voice? Technically, it is to do with the nuts and bolts of our writing:
- The words we select
- The way we put them together and
- The persona we create – you can think of this as the personal narrator that the reader hears in their head when reading what you’ve written.
Defining tone of voice isn’t easy – often we just know what we like by our response when we read. Equally, choosing a tone of voice that is pleasing to your reader isn’t necessarily straightforward. It might be a question of experimenting – asking a sample of readers whether the way you have written produces the feelings you had intended. The key to successful writing lies in creating an emotion in the reader – often a positive one. If you’re successful, your audience will join you and keep the faith, enthusiastically reading on to the end of the piece.
Whether you’re writing for business to business (B2B), business to consumer (B2C) or for staff within your own organisation (internal communications), there are a few simple guidelines:
- Your brand should be recognisable. This is achieved by using a consistent tone of voice.
- It should also be distinctive – you don’t want your prospective customer confusing your product with that of your competitors.
- Copy should also be engaging. Make sure that it’s informative, novel and appealing and it will hold your readers’ attention.
Naturally, when writing about your business, your brand or your product, you’d like people to read what you’ve written.
Ramp up the excitement
What you’re aiming for – to be engaging
The nature of some businesses will often dictate the tone. Naturally, when writing about a wedding-related business, the dominant emotions relating to the tone of voice will be romance, joy and optimism. If you’re writing about health issues, you’re likely to choose terms that convey reassurance, professionalism and expertise (though these are important in most other businesses too!). For children’s parties, ramp up the excitement and keep the tone of voice informal: we’ll be having fun just by reading about it.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to have a different tone of voice for certain sections of a website or document. An example would be any of the regulated industries or where terms and conditions or other legal requirements must be stated.
Here’s an example from Sheilas’ Wheels, an otherwise informal and engaging tone is replaced by more formal vocabulary and tone in their terms section.
Always the same – but never dull
What you’re aiming for – creating a credible brand
Using a consistent tone of voice helps to create a brand that your customer believes in. As businesses, we use more than one way of getting in touch with our audiences. All these customer-facing channels of communication should be uniform. You wouldn’t dream of using a different logo on your blog and on your adverts, so keep the tone of voice the same too. Just a quick list of ways you might communicate with your potential clients:
- Social media
- Leaflets and brochures
- White papers
- Annual reports
Let’s take the example of SOHO Coffee Co – a Cheltenham-based coffee shop and take-out food business. Their style of communication doesn’t vary, whether it’s a quick tweet, in-store signage or slogans on their coffee cups. The business has a recognisable tone of voice – in their case this is dry humour and slightly quirky. They back this up admirably with specially-commissioned illustrations. The style of the copy and the accompanying images create a strong, recognisable brand. Note the use of warm, inclusive language and strong use of social media. Phrases like “wrap yourself around …” are appealing and offer a vivid image of what it would be like to join them and enjoy their products.
Knew it was you!
What you’re aiming for – instant recognition
The images and tone of voice of the coffee company mentioned above are distinctive. The reader knows immediately which brand they’re reading about. Often the first thing they spot will be brand colours, logo and the font used. They can then anticipate the style of writing and will quickly become familiar with the brand’s strapline and key messages. This is partly due to repetition and partly because the copywriter has selected words and phrases that match their in-house style.
The sardonic language and repetition of their claim to be “probably the best …” makes Carlsberg a globally-recognised brand. They achieve this with informal, chatty language which is just the right side of ridiculous. As with beer, so with copywriters (or whatever your occupation might be) – there’s no harm in repeatedly telling people that you’re the best! In contrast, Stella Artois took a slightly different approach, employing the “reassuringly expensive” strapline to indicate quality.
Formulating your tone of voice
What you’re aiming for: considering the needs of your customer
As part of your branding, you will have considered what image you want to have. This is an important decision: right up there with decisions about your product or service. You will already have an ideal customer in mind. What do they like? Where do they eat? Who are their friends and family? What are their buying habits? Knowing the answers gives you clues about how to communicate with this person.
Sometimes it helps to think of your business as a person and develop a character and a vocabulary to match. By formulating a persona for your brand, you can select the audience you will interact with. This persona governs how your prospective buyers will view you; who your business will appeal to and who is likely to buy. Once these decisions are made, you need to give your persona a tone of voice.
The reassuring voice of authority, using formal language
The joking, sociable lad (or lass) about town, using informal language
The informed, technically-savvy voice, which uses technical vocabulary fluently
The warm, welcoming voice of the hospitality industry.
In the case of each persona, you can imagine the intended audience. Each will use vocabulary that is appropriate to its audience. (Remember to explain unfamiliar terms though. By being inclusive, you can convert new customers to your brand.)
Bang and Olufsen has chosen an authoritative, expert tone of voice. Their website content uses technicial, industry-specific vocabulary to indicate that they know what they’re talking about. This is reassuring to the well-informed customer (who knows exactly what they’re looking for) and to non-expert customers, and helps them to make their purchases confidently. Nevertheless it’s important to explain terms and help your customer to understand, rather than leaving them feeling confused.
STA Travel The topic is holidays and that’s all about fun, right? So the STA website uses a conversational, informal tone of voice to convey the exciting times their readers might anticipate if they book a trip with the company.
Student Loans Company. Contrasting with the above, the Student Loans Company adopts a more formal register, using the kind of vocabulary you would associate with financial services. They have a tricky tightrope to walk, keeping their copy within the rules of such institutions, but have they forgotten who their audience is? Do they succeed in their aim, “to become a digital, customer focused, centre of excellence”?
Air Asia‘s advertising agency took a risk in making a pun from the place name Phuket (and our inability to pronounce it properly!) in this advert. It relies on having a fun-loving, one-of-the-lads persona for the airline. The was a danger that the choice of language might offend part of their audience. In reality the majority of their potential customers found it amusing enough to comment on and share. Job done!
Business Benefits – in summary
What you’re aiming for – making your tone of voice work for your business
- The benefits of spending time formulating a tone of voice document will be evident in time saved on all future writing for your business.
- Other agencies can use it as guidance when working with your brand. You can outsource writing, confident in the knowledge that it will match your house style.
- Your intended audience will instantly recognise your brand’s tone of voice.
- This brand recognition, coupled with an excellent product or service, leads to customer loyalty – and future sales.
Does your businesses have a distinctive tone of voice?
I hope this helps to de-mystify the process behind choosing a distinctive tone of voice to suit your business. If you’d like to discuss how to improve your company’s written materials while we wrap ourselves around a warm drink – give me a shout!
I very much enjoyed working with Sue Kelso Ryan while she was writing copy for a new website and I’m delighted with the end result! … I would highly recommend Sue and indeed, I hope to work with her on further projects in the future.Dr Mike Crisp – Jan 2016