Establishing a ‘tone of voice’ is one of the key ways that businesses can build a consistent, recognisable brand.
First off, you need to document your business’s tone of voice. The next step is figuring out how to apply it across all your content and communications. Bridging that gap is what we’re focusing on today.
What is tone of voice?
‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
— Maya Angelou, American memoirist and poet
If copywriting can be broken down into two halves, the first is what you say and the second is tone of voice - that is, how you say it.
Tone of voice is about making people feel things. Ideally, good things. It’s about how you say what you say and how you make people feel when you say it.
There are four elements that make up your tone of voice. Those are:
- Attitude - What is the attitude you want to demonstrate as a business? Are you energetic and youthful, or calm and professional, for example?
- Energy - This is the overall vibe of your tone. Are you positive and optimistic? Interrogative and inquisitive? Bold and assertive?
- Syntax and rules - These are the practical details. For example, do you refer to your business as ‘we’ or do you always use your business’s name?
- Your audience - This is where being true to your brand, your business and who you are meets the needs of your customers. You want to resonate with your audience and reflect their tone of voice back to them to some extent, so it’s a bit of a two-way street.
The above image is a snapshot from one of our strategy foundations workshops (sign up to the DIY email course, here).
It might seem a bit silly, but by asking our clients to choose between these options - and there are many more - we open up the conversation and establish a better idea of what they want their tone of voice to be. You can land in the middle for some of these, but not all. If you do, you'll end up sounding robotic and unmemorable. You have to be willing to make the choices that define you to have a tone of voice.
Tone of voice in action
Here’s a classic example:
Google vs Apple
This is the landing page copy for Google Pixel 6 Pro, the smartest and fastest Pixel yet:
They're talking about the power of the processor, their shiny camera, the all-day battery and really great security. All good stuff. Then compare that to Apple:
It sounds totally different, right?
Consider the content though. They're saying the same things. Shiny camera. Powerful microchip. Longer battery life. It’s how they say it that’s totally different. Apple’s tone is more divisive and emotive. People are going to love it or think it’s a load of waffle. But it’s fine to repel people because you want to build your tribe. Appeal to the people who will buy and don’t worry about putting off those who won’t. That’s the only way to stand out.
Why does tone of voice matter?
A well-defined tone of voice matters. It builds your brand, elicits emotions (and actions) from your audience and grows traffic, audience and leads.
Building brand identity and recognition
If someone says, ‘How do you recognise your brand?’ The most obvious answer is probably your logo and your name. So let’s take those things away. Would people still know it was your business? Are you actually identifiable? If you have a well-deployed, distinctive tone of voice, then the answer should be yes.
A well-known example of this is Innocent Drinks. If you read some of their content, even without their little halo and their name, you'd be able to guess who wrote it.
The way people feel is more impactful than the way people think. We all love to think that we're incredibly rational when we make decisions. We make our pro and con list. We make a little spreadsheet. But, ultimately, as a species, we're actually not very good at rational decisions and we're very heavily influenced by our emotions. If you can trigger positive emotions through your tone of voice as people are going through your sales funnel, that's going to have an impact.
Creating compelling content that is good for search engine optimisation
If you've got no clear tone of voice, people are going to get bored very quickly. They're not going to hang around on your site. They're not going to read other articles. They're not going to interact. And Google's going to recognise that. Those are factors that affect how you are ranked on search engines. If your audience isn’t sticking around, Google will rank your content accordingly.
You've got to build that emotional connection to encourage people to convert. Conversion can mean a sale, or a subscription, or signing up to a demo. For people to give up their details, like their contact information, they need that sense of safety.
You wouldn't walk along the street, giving total strangers your email address. You want to feel that there's a little bit of a connection and that's based on emotion. You want people to feel a sense of trust when they read your article. You want them to think ‘I've forgotten what they actually said about cloud migration, but I remember they sounded like they knew what they were talking about and they sounded like my kind of people.’ Tone of voice creates that sense of, ‘I remember them. I like them. I'm going to go back to them.’ That's what you want.
What influences tone of voice?
There are several things you can do to influence and therefore express your tone of voice.
Your messaging gives you the concept of why you're saying what you're saying. Tone of voice only works when it's aligned to what you're saying and why you’re saying it. These things have to match if they're going to resonate and feel true.
If your messaging is that ‘you are seasoned experts’ and your tone is ‘authoritative’, don't say something like, ‘There are many ways to address this problem and it's hard to distinguish between them.’ What you’re saying doesn’t back up your messaging or your tone of voice. Instead, you’d want to say something like, ‘Having seen this problem countless times, we know there are many ways to solve it and how to distinguish between them is all in the detail.’ You’ve said the same sort of thing, really, but in a different way that both conveys your message of expertise and your authoritative tone. Messaging and tone reinforce one another.
There is another part at play here and that’s audience. Think about how your customers and their peer groups talk. When you write, you want to enact the attributes that your customers actually want. You might want to write in a way that’s factual, detailed and educational, but if you're in a market where your customers are all exciting, daring and impulsive entrepreneurs, is that going to resonate? Probably not. So, be empathetic to your audience. Echo the terminology and style that your customers use. Be distinct, but sympathetic.
When writing, what sources are you referencing? The Financial Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal? Is it McKinsey or Harvard Business Review? Or is it academic journals and books? Your choice of sourcing indicates something about your tone of voice. Strategic, ‘voice of the people’, geeky - these sources have their own tone, too.
Particularly online, when people are scanning your copy, they're going to make an immediate decision about what kind of style something is based on structural elements such as headings.
In the New Yorker you've got blocks of text, so you know it's probably something packed with information that you’re going to need to sit down and digest. You go over to Buzzfeed, you've got a quote, a line, a one sentence paragraph, an embedded tweet, a link, another sentence. It's very quick. It's energetic. It's high level. Before you even know what those words are saying, you've got a sense of that energy and that tone.
The argument you’re making
Are you going to be very balanced and informative? Are you going to be opinionated and authoritative? Are you going to be inquisitive and inspirational? How are you tackling the argument you’re making in a given piece of content?
Where you pitch it
This is going to be influenced in part by the type of content you’re writing and where it sits in the funnel, but within those constraints you can still make some tone-based decisions around how you pitch it. How much knowledge are you assuming the audience has? How detailed and academic will you be?
Examples of tone of voice in action
Here are three examples of tone of voice in action. These are adapted from real clients and real pieces of work in the B2B tech sector. They showcase more subtle, nuanced tones of voice than the likes of Innocent Drinks, which is hopefully more practicable for you.
Each example includes bullet points from a summarised and condensed version of a proper tone of voice document, so you can see how the tone is translated into text.
- Idealistic and optimistic - we believe things can be done differently.
- But also grounded in reality: data-driven and insight-led. Informal in the way we communicate, but knowledgeable about what we say.
- Passionate about our product and the results it can achieve.
- Respectful of our readers and customers, their time and their needs.
You can see the ways we’re bringing out this tone of voice in the sales email example. The use of the words ‘hope’ and ‘empower’ relate to the idealistic and optimistic tone. You get a sense of the passion and the empathy for the subject matter. It’s a short email, so the writer has respected the time of the recipient. All of these elements come into play here.
- Empower. Help people find the tools they need to manage their projects, programs and portfolios by using language that informs them and encourages them to make most of our products.
- Respect. Treat readers with the respect they deserve. Put yourself in their shoes, and don’t patronise them. Remember that they have other things to do. Don’t market at people; communicate with them.
- Educate. Tell readers what they need to know, not just what we want to say. Give them the exact information they need, along with opportunities to learn more. Remember that you’re the expert, and readers don’t have access to everything you know.
- Speak truth. Understand X's place in our users’ lives. Avoid dramatic storytelling and grandiose claims. Focus on our real strengths.
The tone of voice for this one is about empowering people. It therefore uses language that informs and encourages them. It assumes a fair amount of knowledge in the audience and doesn’t talk down to them. Rather, it’s pitched as educational and informative, not salesy. It also references research and reports, which supports the ‘educate’ bit of the tone of voice.
- Capable: …can readily provide answers to their questions, both from a technical angle and from a process management angle… We like to geek out with likeminded folk...
- Thorough: our dedicated X engineers are ‘in the trenches’ with project managers and development teams … we’re serious about great X and use data to inform any decisions, not just opinions.
- Outcome-driven: we look for reasons to get inspired, to innovate, to think outside the box. We’re confident in our abilities to work together with organizations to achieve their goals. …we’ve got our eye on the horizon, too.
- Sincere: What matters is solving for the customer, and we’re self-aware enough to know we aren’t always right… honest and straight-forward …Part of that means delivering information in a candid manner.
- Speaking from the heart: We communicate in a friendly, informal way (but not sarcastic or overtly irreverent)… B2B is really just human to human, after all.
In this example, the writer is geeking out about Agile, in a fun way. They're having a conversation that they think the other person's going to be really engaged with. They're outcome-driven, talking about benefits and reasons to believe. The whole style is very clearly from the heart. It’s different from the second example. It's much more relaxed. There's a lot more kind of what you might call ‘meta discourse’ - words that help join sentences together and that address the reader directly.
5 steps to the tone zone
Finally, let’s end on some actions you can take the next time you’re sitting down to write. Here are five ways to get yourself into the ‘tone zone’:
- Immerse yourself in that tone of voice. Reread your tone of voice and messaging documents. Read some past articles. Get into the right headspace.
- Try music. At Articulate, we have to switch gears between clients and different voices quite a lot. So it helps to have an artist or playlist that you associate with a certain vibe. Beyoncé for a confident, powerful tone of voice. Enya for something calm and reassuring. Kate Bush if you’re going for quirky.
- Be yourself. One of the worst things you can do, when bringing a tone of voice to life, is to write in ‘a voice’. You’re either going to come across cartoonish, like Alan Partridge, or it's just going to be very stilted and awkward. What you want to do is find the elements of your personality that most resonate with the tone of voice and your business’s personality. Lean into those, think about those aspects of yourself and bring that element of yourself to your writing. That will feel more human and natural.
- Use the Hemingway app. It will highlight complex sentences, long phrases, passive voice and adverbs. This will help you work out where you’ve lost consistency in your tone of voice.
- Read your work aloud. When you finished it, physically say it out loud with your actual voice. Don't just read it in your head. Ask yourself. Does it sound human? Does it sound like your business?
There you have it - how to express your brand’s tone of voice through copywriting. If you’d like some help with your tone of voice documentation, or some stellar on-brand copywriting (or both!), contact our team. We’d be happy to get you in the tone zone, too.