Tone of voice has been pretty hot for a while.
In sectors that have been traditionally dusty and conformist (finance, insurance) brands are really challenging conventions around how they talk to (note: not write for) their customers.
And there’s plenty of great work going on in more tangible, retail-y industries, from big-talking technical clothing brands to no-nonsense bed companies.
A lot of time and energy goes into creating and implementing these voices, and getting it right consistently is *hard*. For every great example you find, there’s a small corner of the customer experience where someone missed a bit.
There’s no silver bullet for nailing your tone of voice (sorry).
What I have for you instead are a few different ways to think about the brand tone of voice as a function of your business – not just your brand.
What is tone of voice?
Tone of voice is how an organisation communicates with it’s audiences through messaging and communication. It is not only what you say, but how you say it – so emotion and mood is just as important as words when it comes to tone of voice.
Can you answer these 5 tone of voice questions?
These five tone of voice questions should help you take a fresh look at defining your brand.
They focus on what’s going on in your business now, so you can:
a) hold your tone of voice up to the light and see where it needs adapting to be authentic
b) hold your business practices up to the promises your tone makes, and see what might need to change
c) zero in on the individuals and behaviours that can help you build a solid, authentic starting point for a new tone of voice.
Question 1: Who are you talking to?
The list is probably longer than you think. Your business talks to people facing many eventualities, from a website user who’s just landed on an error page, to bereaved customer relatives, to the junior exec waiting for news of their promotion.
Some of these will feel more urgent than others in terms of reviewing your tone of voice. I’d urge you to look at how your business talks in as many different scenarios as you can. Better ways of working might come out of unexpected places.
It’s also a good way to stress-test tone guidelines or ideas you already have.
Can they flex to cover every audience? Could they be fleshed out to serve certain people better?
Do you actually need to follow a different set of writing rules for a certain audience or proposition?
This is a real opportunity if your brand identity to diverse markets, e.g. insurance for businesses vs individuals. Those audiences come with different contexts and assumptions, and different opportunities for irreverence and humour. They can handle different types (and amounts) of jargon and respond to different cliches.
Setting the right tone can be a powerful way to change the kind of connection you make. Review how you’re talking, set the tone with a campaign, build trust with that audience and notice the difference when customers realise you *are* for them after all.
And to be honest, if all this post does is make you think: “dang, we need to start talking to our employees in a way that recognises they’re human beings and we are too” – that’s a little victory for me.
Question 2: Where are your moments of truth?
I have stolen this concept wholesale from the Monzo tone of voice guidelines (well worth the estimated 17-minute read) and I’m not even sorry.
“Every word adds up to people’s perception of who we are. And if the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or technical stuff. Those are the moments of truth when people will decide if we’re really transparent, and if we really have their best interests at heart.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself, so I didn’t try. Identify your moments of truth. Claims processes, rejection letters, product recalls, service outages. It’s easy to think about tone through rose-tinted specs, and all the nice fun stuff you can get up to.
But how you talk when the chips are down is the real opportunity to demonstrate how you truly are different.
Question 3: Who does the talking?
There are three angles to this tone of voice test. (Sneaky)
Version A: Who talks in some way on your brand’s behalf?
Flippantly, you might say “everyone”.
Seriously, you actually might be right.
Marketing teams, obviously. But also: freelancers marketing use, sales teams, product teams, legal and compliance, HR, PR, internal comms, customer service teams and relationship managers, the hold track on your phone system (not a person: still important).
There’s a lot going on. And I’ll leave it to you to calculate the odds that everyone in your organisation is on the exact same page…
It’s helpful to make a list of all these people, to get clarity on who you might need to consider – or even consult – when you’re creating or implementing your tone of voice. Whatever your situation is now, all these people will be somewhere on a spectrum from no awareness to full-blown advocacy when it comes to tone of voice and how it affects your business.
Version B: Who does the *best* talking?
Whose sales patter do you wish you could bottle? Who writes emails that are actually worth the inbox space they take up? Who puts together the decks that don’t feel like death-by PowerPoint? Confusingly, it’s not always strictly a person. You might have more of a company bible going on: a previous piece of work people keep coming back to.
Consider what boxes those people or pieces of work are ticking. Plot out what characteristics they have in common, and how they relate to the way you would like the whole business to talk and behave.
Version C: Who controls the narrative?
Who does the most talking about the business and its ambitions, internally and out in the world? It might not be who you think. It could be the CEO; the industry expert from ops who’s built a great rep in the industry; or that intern who picked up and ran your social media accounts with unexpectedly brilliant results.
You need to involve the people in assessing your tone of voice, because they’re the ones pumping out brand and product messages week in, week out.
Question 4: Who is best and worst equipped?
Look at your answers to question 3 (the people who do the talking). They’ll all have various degrees of brand awareness, customer service training, and interest in the brand in the first place. The best and worst equipped people may not be the same people who do the most or least (or best and worst) talking. Once you know which people need support, you can start on the answer to this next one…
Question 5: What tools do they need?
Guidelines, examples, tools, workshops – updates.
Your business tone of voice is a living thing. A new offering might come with a new variation of your tone, especially if it’s for a new market.
At the beginning of your brand’s life or your last brand overhaul, you might have created a suite of tools. You might have been using the same tone brand guidelines through several visual identities. Are they *really* fit for purpose now? The best people to help you answer that question are on the lists you made to answer questions 3 and 4.
So involve them in process of creating or adapting the tools you have. Educate, consult, and share ownership.
It’s hard for one person to shepherd and look after the voice of a brand across all its many facets. It’s much easier for a network of people across your business, who are invested in getting your brand to sound right.
How did you do?
How did you do in this brand tone test? Smashed it, 5/5? Decided to do a bit more digging?
Wherever you’ve landed, I hope this has given you pause for thought and helped to illuminate the business potential of getting your tone of voice spot on.
If you want to talk more about tone get in touch with the expert branding team at mark-making*. Contact us here today.
Written by Chloe Marshall