By Tom Brown | November 24 2016
Use tone of voice guidelines to help you communicate effectively across all forms and channels, promote consistency, and meet core organisational objectives.
The way we speak says a lot about us. Think about how you talk to different people.
You probably don’t speak with your nearest and dearest over Sunday lunch in exactly the same way that you chat to your friends down the pub. To put it another way, it's unlikely that you talk to your manager in the same way you talk to your hairdresser.
This is what we mean by tone of voice (TOV), and it's important because in order to persuade someone to do something — and that is, of course, what marketing is all about — it's most effective to communicate with them using the kind of language that they will be comfortable with and respond to.
This is particularly important when you're setting up your content marketing strategy and related activities.
Short on time? Download our inbound marketing ebook and skip to chapter four, where we discuss the importance of consistent messaging across channels and how to create a comprehensive communications strategy.
Tone of voice guidelines are an internal document that objectively define your brand's tone of voice and clarify to the reader how to write in it.
In corporate enterprises and companies with mature digital marketing strategies, tone of voice guidelines might form one part of larger communication strategies or creative brand guidelines. We create and maintain a communication strategy for every client, for example, so whoever is working on that client and wherever they are publishing branded content, the client's tone of voice is consistent.
Putting together tone of voice guidelines is the easiest way to make yourself a) think about what type of language suitable and b) get examples of these documented.
A 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 examples.
Irregularities in voice are glaring. Decide whether the content will be written in the first, second, or third person. Once you’ve decided, this should be kept consistent. Engage the senior team at this early stage to ensure the tone of voice is both accurate and representative of the brand and how it should be perceived.
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.
The brand dictionary is a collection of words your team should use in the 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.
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 is not being strived for.
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.
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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