Defining and developing a consistent and distinctive tone of voice can work wonders for your business online, says Dan Fielder, head of content at Sticky Content, a digital copywriting agency based in London.

Defining and developing a consistent and distinctive tone of voice can work wonders for your business online, says Dan Fielder, head of content at Sticky Content Ltd, a digital copywriting agency based in London.

If your brand was a famous film star or TV personality, who would it be? David Attenborough? Tom Hanks? Sue Barker? If you can answer that question, you’re a good way to understanding what your business’ tone of voice should be. In this article we look at what tone of voice is, the benefits it can bring your business, and offer some guidelines for defining and developing a voice that you can apply to your online communications again and again.

What is tone of voice?

If your business or your brand could talk, it would talk in your tone of voice. That voice might change depending on the message and the medium – you won’t sound exactly the same in a customer service FAQ as in a promotional tweet, for instance.

But underlying those differences there should be a core voice that is unmistakably you. In the same way, though you talk differently to your mum than to your 2-year-old daughter, both styles of speaking come from the same, core, unmistakable you. Finding your tone of voice is also essential for creating an effective brand

Why does tone of voice matter?

Defining a voice you can use again and again has many potential benefits:

  • Stand out from the crowd: if people get to know your voice and personality it can become a positive point of differentiation. Brands like Orange, Virgin and Boden use voice in this way, with great success
  • Sell more, serve better: paying more attention to the way you communicate with words can improve the quality of your sales copy and your customer service messages
  • Make your online communications more usable: a clear, informative tone of voice helps people navigate your website and get the most from other online communications.

What makes a great tone of voice?

Businesses that do tone of voice really well demonstrate two key characteristics in their communications – consistency and flexibility.

  • Consistency: To use language in a way that is recognisably you, you have to get your voice consistently in all your messages and channels. This is a difficult thing to do, especially if your words are the work of multiple authors, which is why strong guidelines are so important (see below).
  • Flexibility: A great voice gets everywhere – not just in all the obvious places, like product information and adverts, but wherever your words can impact on your customer. From transactional emails to error messages to online forms, a strong voice can lift a dull or difficult message into a powerful brand touchpoint. To do this successfully, you have to be able to flex your voice, modulating how you speak according to context, medium, audience and message.

Defining and developing a voice

1. Do some thinking: Start by thinking about who you are and what you stand for. What are your brand values? Your USP? Then think about what your audience(s). Who are you key customer groups? What do they want from you? What do they want from your website? Look at your comms: find some examples you really like, and ones you really don’t. Finally, look at your market and your competition. How do others in your space use voice? Where is the opportunity to do something different?

2. Develop some values: Turn that thinking into a list of five tonal values, any of which could complete the sentence, “When we write, we sound x”. To make these as specific as possible for your authors, break each value down further using Always/Never, e.g. for the tonal value “friendly”: “We always sound helpful, welcoming, polite; we never sound ”over-familiar or chatty”.

3. Create some language rules and examples: Put in place some practical copywriting guidance for your authors on how to write in your voice. For “friendly”, you might advise writers to use lots of “you” and “we”, and to focus on benefits not features. Include a list of words to use and words to avoid. You can also include a style guide, explaining your approach to slang, British/American English, specialist terms, key spellings and other relevant language points. Most importantly, create some good and bad examples to illustrate each tonal value. Writers find the contrast between these Before and After versions really instructive.

4. Use your guidelines to flex your voice: You may have different audiences for different products or communications. Use your guidelines to show how you would apply your voice in these different contexts. What counts for you as “friendly” in a tweet might be quite different to “friendly” in a corporate white paper, for instance. It's all right to use language of more complexity in one area of your site than in another, for instance, so long as it's pitched right for the intended audience.

5. Choose one value as the focus for each message: It can be tough for a writer to work five tonal values into one communication, especially when writing something very brief and focused like an email or a banner. So instead, choose one value as the focus of a communication. “Friendly” might be a good focus for a customer service message, for instance, while a different value like “passionate” or “expert” might be better for a blog post.

Making voice work online

When working on defining your voice, make sure that your approach to language doesn’t conflict with the basics of web-writing best practice. Digital content needs to be created in self-contained modules, instantly informative, and clearly signposted. It needs to be easy to scan, compliant with accessibility guidelines, and rich in search keywords.

Tone of voice online always needs to work within these parameters. To do so, bear in mind that tone online is expressed in at least three ways:

  • Messaging: How you position your messages has a massive tonal effect. Does your About us page begin ”We were founded in 1972...” or “Here’s 5 ways we can help you”?
  • Information design: The way your content is laid out creates a strong impression for good or bad. The most beautifully written copy will have little effect if it presented as an impenetrable slab of text.
  • Language selection: Do you say ”gift” or “pressie”? “Kind regards” or “yours sincerely”? Do you use more dashes or semi-colons? Cumulatively, all these tiny decisions add up to a voice.