We talk a lot about content in the online space, creating content, distributing content – but how do you make that content authentic and ‘ownable’ for your brand or company? Whether you’re writing 500-word blog posts on your website or 140-character tweets, it’s not just about the type of content that you publish, but the style of that content. Here, copywriter Alex Genn shares his thoughts on why defining your tone of voice is so important, and how you can go about doing so for your own business.
Tone of what?
We’ve all heard the term bandied around but what does it really mean? To me, tone of voice is the definition of how the brand speaks (in the written word). Brand language is how we put the tone of voice into practice. And it’s as much part of the brand as the logo, values, packaging or services. Usually it’s expressed through the written word, on the page, online, in social media, in videos (as voice over) or wherever. There’s also cross-over into design. The brand language can define where and when you capitalise words, how you punctuate, the format of dates and times, and anything else that’s written down.
What’s it for?
The tone of voice expresses your brand’s unique personality, reflecting the values, objectives and offering of the company. Crucially it does so in a consistent way. This re-assures the reader (customer) that the brand is trustworthy. So in the same way that you would have brand guidelines to ensure the logo always uses the same colour pallet, your tone of voice allows you to create a brand language guide that can ensure the brand expresses itself consistently.
How does it work?
Tone of voice is one of those things you’ll already be aware of but don’t really notice, at least not until it’s pointed out. For example, if you think about Innocent Drinks, their tone is light-hearted and earnest. It brings to mind a chatty, fun friend, who cares about your health. Now consider IBM; their tone is serious, traditional and austere. It feels like a consultant concerned about your business. The tone of each is very different but absolutely right for their business and for their customers. And both serve to re-enforce who they are as brands, as well as their understanding of their customers’ expectations of them as a brand.
What About Me?!
So here’s the tricky question for every business, large and small: how do you find your tone of voice? Well, the real question, and sorry to get philosophical, is actually: who are you? We need to define who the brand is first. Once we know that, we can understand their personality. And once we know the personality, we can define how that ‘person’ would speak.
It’s very common for companies to be so busy with the day-to-day business of servicing clients and selling their services that things like branding don’t ever move off the back burner. Especially when getting the brand defined seems so often to come with an enormous bill from a branding agency. And of course more than that, it can be contentious. After all, it’s easy for everyone at the company to agree about what you sell. But how do you find a consensus for who your brand is?
1. Who’s in?
The first thing you need to decide is, well, who’s deciding? Create a stakeholder group, making sure you include everyone senior or who would want to be involved, as if they only get involved later on they can de-rail the process, undoing all your hard work.
2. Brass tacks
Once you’ve got your stakeholder group, you need to start your company soul searching. You may have done this already; you might have already defined the company’s core values, its mission and its objectives. You might know exactly how these are perceived by, and relate to, your customer and staff. If so, great, if not, you need to get cracking.
3. Making it human
Once you’ve agreed on how these key aspects of your company are understood, and connect with your customers and staff, you can move on to thinking about your brand personality – this is how you discover who your business is, to define how it speaks. This might feel like an odd process, applying something distinctly human to an organisation, but it’s crucial to establishing something that people can relate to, after all, people relate to other people, so it makes sense to give your organisation relatable human qualities.
4. Giving it a voice
Having defined a personality that everyone agrees fits the company’s values and objectives, you can move on to express how that personality talks. Is it serious, austere and wise or fun, impulsive and quirky? Whatever you decide, the language will fall naturally out of the personality. You’ll need to consider carefully everything about the way you use words, phrases, punctuation and grammar. For example, a light-hearted conversational tone will use more relaxed grammar, shorter sentences and words, and colloquialisms. Conversely a more serious tone will use traditional grammar, longer sentences and words, and generally more formal terminology.
5. Setting it in stone
Once you’ve defined your voice, you need to make sure it relates to where it came from. So have a look at those values we talked about earlier. How does the voice you’ve chosen express them? Which phrases and ideas express each value best? Create some examples. Of course you need to make sure these also reflect the personality. These are the building blocks of your brand language document. Give everyone in your organisation (or at least in marketing/communications) access to this document and it can ensure consistency across all your brand communications.
Remember this is a creative process. Have fun with it!