By Dr Thomas Brown | November 24 2016
In three simple steps, discover how to write effective tone of voice guidelines that your whole business can work from.
Can you confidently say that every piece of content your team publishes is written in the same voice?
Whether you outsource your content to a freelance gig or your subject matter experts write it, one of the biggest challenges we see businesses facing when they come to creating content is doing so in their brand's voice.
It's totally understandable, too. Freelancers rarely scrape the surface of a business, while subject matter experts are so deep in their areas of expertise that content can often go way over your target readers' heads. (There's a reason most UK national newspapers assume a reading ability lower than that of a 10-year-old — no matter how sophisticated the publication. Read more about why you need to find the right writing style for your business.)
What's a marketing or content manager to do?
Enter the tone of voice guidelines.
A tone of voice guide doesn’t need to be complicated and long for it to be useful. In fact, the simpler and more accessible you can keep it, the better.
As a start, we'd recommend that it contains just three sections: a definition of your voice, a brand dictionary, and some objective examples.
But first, what is a tone of voice guide and why does your business need one?
A tone of voice guide is your company's one-stop-shop for writing in your brand's voice. What is voice, I hear you ask, and how can a brand have one?
As usual, HubSpot provides a neat definition:
Borrowed straight from the learned pages of the HubSpot Academy, this definition clearly spells out what voice means in relation to your brand. We're talking about personality. And in the age of personalisation, human relationships, and customer-facing marketing, a little personality can go a long way.
Whatever your brand's personality, it's important that this remains consistent across all your customer-facing communications, whether your marketing team is writing a landing page, your copywriter is drafting an article, or the sales reps are pulling together a proposal.
Of course, you wouldn't write all those communications in exactly the same way. This is where tone comes in.
Your sales proposal is likely to be a little more formal in tone that your LinkedIn posts, for example. In turn, those are likely to be more professional-sounding than the stories you're sharing on your company Instagram page.
So while your voice should be consistent (and documented), your tone is much more circumstantial. What is the context in which you or your team is writing and what is the right tone to strike?
The way we speak says a lot about us. With today's consumers demanding authenticity and transparency, your voice needs to be true to your brand, but it also needs to be accessible to your audience. Step one when creating your tone of voice guidelines is defining a voice that meets those criteria.
This exercise should help:
Brand voice exercise
Imagine your brand is a person at a dinner party. You're sitting around the table with your business partners and competitors. It's the Friday after a long week and conversation is in full swing. You know the scene, but can you place your brand at the table?
Think about the typical characters you might expect to see: the outspoken authority leading the discussion, the reserved intellectual contributing insightful remarks, the comedian of the group bringing everyone to laughter with wit and pizzazz.
Thinking of your brand as a person instead of a business entity is a great way of bringing it to life and helping to imagine its voice. If possible, engage as much of senior team as you can to ensure the tone of voice is both accurate and bought in across senior management/the board. Irregularities in voice are glaring. Everyone needs to be speaking in the same voice, after all.
If you're struggling to agree on which person your brand is, try starting with your competitors. It might be that everyone in the room imagines your brand differently but no one's in doubt that X company, against which you've been competing for many years, is the high-brow, holier-than-thou know it all at the head of the table.
The brand dictionary is a collection of words and other directives your team should use across their content because they evoke the right feeling and characterise the way you want people to think about your brand or company.
Every industry and company has its own jargon, and this section of the guide should explain that jargon, so that you can be sure your readers always understand. While you may well be an expert in your field, the chances are that not all of your buyer personas are. Unexplained acronyms can be particularly frustrating for readers.
Speaking in the first, second, or third person
Will your content will be written in the first, second, or third person?
You might change 'person' for different forms, aiming to strike a more colloquial tone across your blog articles with the second person compared to a more formal white paper written in the third-person, for example. The take away here is not to write every other article in a different person — your brand voice will change!
This part of the guide is especially useful if — as is often the case — more than one person is responsible for creating the content at your company.
List out some sentences or phrases that really encapsulate the style of writing you want and pair these with ‘off-brand’ versions which highlight the differences between what is and what isn't 'right'.
Both types of examples will help other writers to understand what is appropriate. Examples are much more useful than descriptions of ‘brand personality’, which can be rather generic. Traits are subjective, so your idea of ‘confident and warm’ might be quite different from mine.
The short answer is no. Remember, the aim of the document is to promote consistency across your communications. Unless you are communicating in a different tone from your brand's voice across social media, it is both effective and practical for your social media and wider marketing teams to work from the same guidelines.
Any social-specific guidelines, around brevity or tailoring your messaging to specific platforms, can be included in the main tone of voice guidelines and signposted accordingly.
It's one thing to create an effective, easy-to-follow tone of voice guide. It's another to make sure everyone in the organisation is working from it.
One of the biggest hurdles companies large and small face when implementing an inbound marketing strategy is keeping tone of voice guidelines front of mind. This means making them as accessible as possible to different teams across the company.
It also means keeping the guide updated regularly, so it reflects the current version of the company and its communications.
Tips to make sure your tone of voice guidelines are being used:
It's not just what we say but how we say it that matters.
The way people perceive your business is to a large degree defined by the words you use. The importance of consistent messaging can't be overstated. If your business writes in a way that doesn't seem authentic, you risk putting off and even confusing for your prospects — which is the last thing anyone wants.
Tone of voice guidelines will help, and as you can see, they can be quick and simple to put together.
Wondering how a tone of voice guide fits into your wider marketing activity? In chapter four of our inbound marketing ebook, we discuss the importance of consistent messaging across channels and how to create a comprehensive communications strategy. Download it now.
Discover everything you need to set up and implement a content strategy for your business
Principal Copywriter at BabelQuest. PhD Creative Writing from the University of Southampton. Novelist with Sparkling Books.
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