Brand tone of voice. Is it the icing on the cake, or is it the cake?

Brand tone of voice (or how not to be ignored when writing for your business)

In this article we’ll explain:

  • What tone of voice is
  • How to get people to read your stuff
  • How to check whether your tone of voice is up to scratch
  • And how to make your tone of voice better

Is your tone of voice up to scratch?

Now’s a great time to look at the tone of voice you use for your writing. Why? Because when you get it right, there are all kinds of benefits. Like making what you write clearer, so customers and staff spend less time trying to understand what you’re saying. And like helping your people get what your organisation stands for.

It’s an investment, and it pays off in more ways than you could imagine.

First though, what is a brand’s tone of voice? It’s a brand’s personality expressed in words. As a company, it’s how you use language to show who you are and what you’re like.

To take a close look at your tone of voice, you have to scrutinise how you write about yourselves, to your customers and to each other, and see if this matches up with the way you want people to see your brand.

All too often it doesn’t. So much business writing is boring, simply filling a page with text because there was a page available. People might be full of how brilliant they are – confidence is no bad thing, but too much is annoying. At worst, people lecture us in unfamiliar jargon, trying to impress us with their specialist knowledge.

They’ve forgotten that no one likes a brand that’s boastful, pompous, irritating or boring.

When your brand really talks to your customers, using just the right tone of voice, people will gladly read what you write to them.

How do you encourage your customers to read what you’ve written? Or, for that matter, your colleagues, your suppliers, your shareholders and the people you’re trying to recruit…Well, think about your own reading time. How do you choose what to read next?

Imagine you’ve got a bunch of emails sitting in your inbox all waiting to be read. We’re talking about you here, yourself, not an imaginary customer, not a target market and not a demographic.

If you looked at your own inbox now, or your in-tray or the post on your doormat when you get home, what would you want to open first and read?

It’s probably going to be the things that look interesting or useful, the ones from people who are going to cheer you up, or the ones that cut to the chase and tell you what you need to know, even if you don’t really want to deal with it today.

You have to open the important things, but wouldn’t it be great if they were clearly written, got to the point and felt as though they had your interests at heart?

There’s almost always too much stuff, so what goes to the bottom of the pile? The bumph, the pointless covering letter that comes with a brochure, the one from the ‘people development and structural harmonisation team’ that uses English but still writes paragraphs you don’t understand, the one where IT are asking you to log on to a new intranet page, but feel the need to explain it in tech-speak so you know how smart they are.

You don’t always want to read stuff that’s been polished to a sheen by a slick copywriter either. The stuff that’s all tricky wordsmithing and no heart.

But the things that get their brand’s tone of voice right go to the top of the pile.

How do you know when you need to change your tone of voice?

If it’s like this, pretty soon.

• Inside your organisation the writing is obviously inconsistent. That happens when there are ‘pockets of anarchy’ – different teams with different styles.

• When you write to each other you sound like a completely different organisation from the one your customers would recognise.

• You’re redesigning your look – a great time to update your language.

• You’re using industry jargon when you write to customers, and you expect them to understand it. (This is sometimes hard to spot, because you work there.)

• Your brand values are clear, but your team have no idea how to put them down on paper

If any one of these points apply to you, NOW!

• Your brand values are about as clear as the M6 on a Friday night.

• Your customers have been complaining about your writing. (This is an emergency. Get help.)

• Your response rates are nose-diving; you really need to look at what you’re saying.

• Your new recruits have no idea what you are talking about.

• You’re reading this and nodding. Or crying.

How to go about improving your tone of voice.

  1. Start with a language analysis. That’s a lot less complicated than it sounds. Just read what’s coming out of your organisation, and the words that flow around inside it, and notice whether they reflect your brand’s personality or not. Think about how your company wants to be seen, and check whether the writing people do consistently sounds like that. For example, look out for bossy notices by the coffee machines, long boring memos on the notice boards and intranet instructions that send you to sleep. Maybe you’ve never considered them to be part of your brand, but they are. Make a record, note the problems.
  2. If you have a clear brand personality, compare your ideal against reality. Take some of the worst examples; rewrite them the way they ought to be. When you’ve got a good number of these before and after pieces, add them to the evidence, and present it to the boss.
  3. Look at all the words you write to customers: ads, letters, website, packaging, invoices, even terms and conditions. Look out for words that people use differently inside your organisation from how they’re used in the outside world. This is hard, because it’s often language that’s part of your verbal furniture but not clear to anyone outside your four walls. For example, in the insurance industry everyone forgets that protection means something completely different in everyday life. The same goes for maturity. To your people, it probably sounds intelligent, and sophisticated to use industry jargon. To your customers it sounds daft.
  4. Count the number of different styles you use inside the organisation, and when you’re writing to your customers. We measure this on a binary system: one tone of voice = good; more than one = too many.
  5. Agree on the tone that suits your brand best. This could take a day; it could take two years. Once it’s in place, use your best writers to help you work out ways to express your tone of voice in your writing. Help the whole company to get into the habit too. This isn’t always easy; like learning any new skill, it seems pretty straightforward when you’re watching an expert but it’s harder to do it yourself. Ever tried brick-laying? But it’s worth it. Because once you have a consistent brand tone of voice, you get a lot better at getting your messages across. Your customers are more likely to read them, and Bob’s your uncle, you save time and money. And everybody in the business will find it easier to understand and show what your brand stands for.

So where does the cake come into it? Getting in a copywriter to do you some fancy new words; that’s just icing. Looking closely at what your brand stands for, and matching your tone of voice to suit its genuine personality, that’s the cake.

When you look this closely at the way your organisation writes, you‘ll probably find some issues with your brand that you need to change. You can’t just ice over them with the elegant use of language, but you can use language well to change your organisation’s culture for the better.