What is tone of voice?

August 28, 2020

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An overview of tone of voice, why your business needs one and quick tips for starting your own TOV work

Life would be boring if everyone spoke the same way. Life would be even duller if everything we read sounded the same, too. Luckily, everyone has their own personality. How someone speaks and communicates with those around them is part of their character. It sets them apart while attracting likeminded people.

You may not give this much thought in your everyday life. You are who you are and you speak how you speak. But in marketing-business-land, we think about personalities a lot and we refer to this work as defining tone of voice (TOV).

If this is your first foray into TOV work for your small business, this article is for you. It’s an introduction to the TOV basics and includes:

  • what is tone of voice, plus examples
  • the business benefits for having a clear TOV
  • my three quick tips for getting started on your own TOV work
  • further learning on TOV.

By the end you should understand why defining a brand tone of voice is important and have an idea on where to begin.

What is tone of voice?

Tone of voice is how a message is communicated and delivered to the receiver. The language, rhythm and pace of what’s written or spoken, influences tone. This makes it possible to say the same thing in lots of different ways and just like our daily interactions with different people, we change how a message is delivered based on who we’re talking to and the situation we’re in. Let’s look at an example. Welcome back messages are very timely as all sorts of businesses reopen after lockdown, so let’s look at different ways that one message can be presented.

 

Welcome back. We’re glad to see you and ready to help. Tone: Formal, yet friendly. It’s simple and to the point.
Hi and welcome back, it’s good to see you again. Tone: More casual with the use of ‘hi’, but still respectful.
Well hey you! It’s been a while but we’re glad you’ve not forgotten us. Have a socially distanced air kiss. MWAH, MWAH! Tone: Friendly, playful and familiar.

 

At the root of each sentence is the same sentiment. But with a few tweaks we can completely change the tone and what we feel when reading it. 

The Neilsen Norman Group (NNG), a company that specialises in user experience, have identified four dimensions of tone of voice. These are:

  1. Funny vs serious
  2. Formal vs casual
  3. Respectful vs irreverent
  4. Enthusiastic vs matter-of-fact.

NNG argues that all copy fits into one of these four groups. Think about the copy in your own business. Think about any marketing comms you see in the next few days. Listen, read and evaluate the tone. My guess is the vast majority fit comfortably into one of those categories.

The right tone of voice helps your company

Working on tone of voice isn’t a fluffy branding exercise. It has a direct impact on your business. Here’s how.

It’s a differentiator

Most customers shop around before committing to buying/downloading/signing up. They may click through dozens of sites selling the same thing you do. Having a tone of voice that differentiates you to your competitors makes you stand out. You’re more likely to stick in your customer’s mind. Back this up with clear, helpful advice and you’re on the track to success. 

Keeps you consistent

One business may need to hire multiple writers to create content for different platforms. A brand TOV document makes sure those writers are all on the same page, which makes sure your company sounds consistent in its messaging and how that’s delivered. Why is this important? Consistency helps the customer get to know you, which increases trust. Imagine how disconcerting it would be to click on a business’ website and it’s all japes and LOLs, then in their email marketing it’s polite and formal. You wouldn’t know if you were coming or going and you’d be within your right to question how genuine the company is.

Top tip: Ensure consistency by starting a copy house style guide. This document outlines brand voice and lets every writer know what your preferred language and style choices are.

Connects with your audience

The right TOV speaks to the right audience, which helps you connect with the people that matter. By writing in a tone that appeals to them — or even mimics they way they speak — you’re more likely to keep them engaged.

3 Quick tips for defining your brand’s tone of voice

Now you know what TOV is and the powerful ways it can help, how can you crack on with defining your company’s tone? I’ve put together three very quick tips for you eager beavers.

1. Listen to your audience. A big part of why your business exists is to please your ideal client. And if imitation is a form of flattery, you should listen carefully to how your ideal clients talk and incorporate elements of that in your brand voice.

2. Make it chime with your values and missions. TOV amplifies your brand values and missions. Look at your company’s values, what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re doing that. What adjectives spring to mind as you read through those?

3. Check what competitors are doing. Being aware of what TOV your competition is using provides inspiration for what you can do differently. Or identify what they are doing well and work out how you can adapt that to make it your own. (I do not condone outright copycatting or plagiarism. There is always a way to put your own spin on things.) Spend time reading through the copy on their site, any emails they send and what they’re saying on their social media.

Tone of voice work can take time. Don’t rush it. Also don’t feel that you have to stick with the same TOV for the rest of your business’ life. It’s a living document. Just as we change how we speak and sound as we grow up and experience life, your company TOV will do the same.

The payoff of doing TOV work? Once it’s defined you’ll find writing your marketing copy that little bit easier because you have guidelines to follow.

Get a better understanding of conversational copy and tone of voice

If you enjoyed this article but want to know more about TOV, I highly recommend listening to Vikki Ross on the Hot Copy Podcast. Vikki is a UK-based copywriter with over 20 years’ experience and specialises in branding and TOV.

vikki-ross-conversational-copy-hot-copy-podcast

The episode is called Writing Conversational Copy which might not strike you as being about TOV. But as Vikki explains, all copy should be a conversation between brand and audience. How that conversation sounds and how it takes place depends on who you’re talking to. For example, “the conversation could be more Aunt in the living room than mates down the pub.” I really love that way of putting it. 

Here on my blog, take a look at the related posts below, but some of the most helpful:

The barstool test

Putting your personality into your copy

Writing with empathy

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