In three simple steps, discover how to write effective tone of voice guidelines that your whole business can work from.

A tone of voice guide doesn’t need to be complicated and long for it to be useful.

As a start, we would recommend that it contains just three sections: a definition of your voice, a brand dictionary, and some objective examples.

How to write simple yet effective tone of voice guidelines for your business

1. Define your voice

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.

  • What are they wearing?
  • How long did they spend getting ready?
  • Are they drinking white? Red?  A line of tequila shots at the bar?
  • Of all these people, who are your customers most likely to get on with?

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.

Short on time? Download our inbound marketing ebook and skip to chapter four, where we reveal how to create a comprehensive communications strategy.

How to Write Simple Yet Effective Tone of Voice Guidelines for Your Business

2. A brand dictionary

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.

  • Start by defining the style of language. Is it for everyman or for experts? Is it evocative or straightforward? Contemporary or classic? Pay close attention to your target audience and who it is you want to be starting conversations with.
  • Then spend some time listing out sample words that fit those styles. For example, a word bank for a sunglasses brand might include words like ‘chic’, ‘incognito’, ‘protection’, ‘celebrity’ and ‘summer’, while for a company making racing bicycles it might include words like ‘exhilarating’, ‘flying’, ‘rush’, ‘escape’ and ‘alive’.
  • The word bank should also set out preferred usage for the most important vocabulary and phrases associated with your brand, for example whether you want your communications to use ‘our employees’ or ‘our people’, ‘bicycle’ or ‘bike’, ‘premium’ or ‘luxury’. 

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?

  • First-person — ‘I think’ or ‘I thought’. This is helpful for building the author's authority and establishing a personal connection with the reader in blog articles and video marketing.
  • Second-person — ‘you think’ or ‘you thought’. Good for showing you really understand your buyer personas, and their pain points and goals.
  • Third-person — ‘he thinks’ or ‘he thought’. Depending on your buyer personas, they may relate best to third-person content. This can often be a good choice for case studies or more formal writing, for example.

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!

3. Actual examples of tone of voice

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.

Should I create separate social media tone of voice guidelines?

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.

Is your tone of voice guide being used?

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:

  1. Vocalise the importance of the guide to new starters during their onboarding
  2. Make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive
  3. Frequently monitor the guide's usage
  4. If you notice the guide isn't being used or followed, ask why

Start striking the right tone of voice

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.

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About the Author

Head of Content at BabelQuest responsible for steering and implementing the content roadmap. PhD Creative Writing at the University of Southampton and novelist with Sparkling Books.

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