A tone of voice is not just for web

Whenever I stumble across an article entitled something like, ‘Developing a tone of voice for web’, I’m troubled.  I guess it’s because the implication of such writings is often that the web has somehow brought about a need for this thing called ‘tone of voice’ and worse, that it’s somehow only relevant to websites.  There’s also a suggestion that tone of voice is everything to do with the writing and nothing else.

Twenty five plus years ago I was filling out an advertising agency’s briefing form and came across the box labelled ‘Tone of voice to be adopted’.  While a little light on explanation, the agency’s general guidance was, ‘…think of the company or product brand as a person, describe the personality traits you want the target audience to recognise it for…’  Sounded a little highfalutin, but resonated all the same.

The consensus today remains that a written tone of voice is still all about the core personality of a company, its culture or its major brands.  It needs to truly represent who you are.  And by being authentic and consistent over time, it should help instil a better understanding and positive perception in the target audience.

More than web

However elaborately you want to define it or however theoretical you want to be about it, a tone of voice is simply not something that’s been invented for web or is in someway restricted to it.

It has always reflected the personality of a company or its product.  It helps to project a personality with which the target audience can connect with emotionally and so buy into.  It cuts across all media channels, online, print and face-to-face.

Integration with design

The importance of graphic design – logos, colours, fonts, photography, illustration  – in projecting an authentic, consistent and memorable brand image and personality has long been understood.

I sense what remains less appreciated is that copywriting has on the whole the same objectives to achieve as graphic design.  The disciplines need to work together, in harmony, to make a whole far greater than the sum of the two parts.  A very business-like brand design coupled with cool, streetspeak copy might just jar.

There are many different methodologies for defining a written tone of voice and coming up with guidelines to follow.  My view is that for something to be effective it needs to be simple. ‘K.I.S.S’ in order to avoid ‘S.N.A.F.U.’…

Plus, I’m always mindful that many great companies actually don’t actively manage their tone of voice, rather they let it happen organically over time and this certainly can work out.  So maybe only a few pages of guidance notes are all that’s actually needed to ensure that tone of voice always remains authentic and consistent over time.

Human values

These days, tone of voice advocates appear agreed on the need to identify a maximum of three core human values or personality traits for a brand, say for example, ‘friendly’, ‘honest’, ‘reliable’.

I tend to agree with limiting it to a few broad values, since coming up with more is sometimes too much of a stretch of the imagination, becomes too debatable and can lead to a degree of repetition.

Writing style

Take the three adjectives and translate them into a series of style tips for tone of voice writing that explain what the values are meant to mean.

For ‘friendly’ read ‘informal’, ‘chatty’, ‘accessible’ maybe, requiring the use of everyday language rather than too much industry speak.  ‘Honest’ might mean ‘open’, ‘objective’ or ‘sharing’ and requires writing that shows transparency and an understanding of ‘the bigger picture’. ‘Reliable’ could equate to ‘dependable’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘solid’, inviting writing with a confident, bold tone.

You may also want to detail what the values definitely don’t mean for a brand, which can only help further steer copywriting in the right direction.

Vocabulary too

Clearly the choice of vocabulary has an important role to play in developing a tone of voice. Without being too prescriptive, generating a list of adjectives, nouns and verbs that are definitely on-tone and a list of words that are completely taboo might not be a bad idea.

And grammar?

Grammar too has an influence.  Breaking with certain grammar conventions or best practice and using more ‘modern speak’ can have a marked impact on the perceived personality of a brand and must be considered wisely.

(The controversial will say that a copywriter’s role is to deliver text that’s clear, concise and compelling – which can be achieved with or without close attention to grammar rules…)

Flexibility as well

All that said, any tone of voice guidelines cannot be too rigid.  They still need to be able to allow flex in relation to the following three factors:

Target audience. In a B2B scenario, a company’s target audience might comprise CEO, Buyer, Plant Manager and Maintenance Engineer.  They will all have differing needs and differing backgrounds.  A B2C setting might see teenagers as the prime target audience, but buy-in from parents is essential.

Communication medium. The approach the writing takes must be able to adapt to the nature of the communications channel.  A one-to-one e-shot offers a different opportunity to that of a one-to-many webinar.  Personally I see social media channels providing a greater opportunity to inject real personality than many others.

The buying process. Consider the trusty ‘AIDA’ communications model.  If you’re introducing the audience to a product for the very first time, writings’ communication goal is to ‘grab attention’.  Overtime its goal is to ‘promote action’, to close a sale. At each stage of the process, the tone of voice needs careful modulation.

And so the relative weighting of our different human values and the writing style that shape our tone of voice needs to be able to change to suit the nature of the audience, the route by which it is communicated with and the communication objective to be achieved.

So what about web?

So here perhaps is the challenge for web-borne communications.  Just as with printed communications before them, text-based communication on websites, emails, sms and social networks can each risk a company losing its unique voice.  At time of writing they too are not face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact, spoken-word communications channels.

As an open, public information resource a website needs to be able to cater for all types of visitor.  These might be customers, journalists or shareholders in the business.  As such the tone of voice employed needs to be able to accommodate all audiences and every level of interest – the content needs to offer broad appeal.

If you are of the view that words really do matter, be that in on-line or in-print marketing communications, then you might want to consider closer management of your tone of voice.

It’s about recognising that how you say something is just as important as what you have to say. People with a tone of voice that’s consistent and doesn’t change dramatically over time are generally those we trust and respect the most.  Why should it be any different for a company or its product?