How do you know if your organisation needs a new tone of voice?

tone of voice
‘Tone of voice’ is the way your brand comes to life via the written word – both the words chosen and the style it’s written in. Think of it as your verbal identity. Take a look at some of the materials your organisation produces. Pick up a brochure, open up a couple of web pages, read a sales letter and an internal email. Then ask yourself:

  • Does the way your organisation come across in its writing truly reflect your brand values?
  • Are the style and tone of writing identical on all the items you have read?
  • Are the items you have just looked at free of industry jargon that your customers may not understand?
  • Is this the kind of material you would want to receive?

What did you answer?

If your answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘yes’, then HURRAH. You obviously don’t need to read any further.

If your answer to any of these is ‘no, not really’, then you definitely need to work on your company’s tone of voice. But worry not, because this article will help point you in the right direction.

If your answer is ‘no, but why should it matter?’ then my response is that tone of voice is what differentiates you and what sets your organisation apart from your competitors. It also helps to build your brand, create your personality and identify who you are.

For example, I’m a customer of Virgin Media and Virgin Active. The way both companies sound when they communicate with me is identical. The language is friendly, informal, clear and absolutely jargon free. When I read emails and mailshots from them, it makes them sound human and not a faceless organisation, But it’s not just about their written communication; when I deal with their cable TV engineers on the phone or their reception staff at the gym, I get the same friendliness. What’s important is that it makes me want to continue to be their customer. So it builds loyalty.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, tone of voice is both the style of language and the specific words you choose. Using the right words can help persuade and motivate your audience to act – whether that’s to buy from you, to subscribe, to sign a petition or to donate money.  And, if you get your tone of voice right, it also ensures that what you are saying (and writing) is more easily understood by the audiences you want to reach.

So I hope you are getting the message that creating the right tone of voice is fairly important.

How to go about developing a new tone of voice

There is a whole continuum of tones of voice, so how do you go about choosing one? Well, firstly you need to come up with a single style of language that aligns with your visual identity, as well as with your firm’s personality, culture, values and attitude. If you are a professional services firm, you are obviously not going to want to sound matey and fun. Likewise, if you are a consumer brand targeting kids, you won’t want to come across as dull or formal. This is just plain common sense.

  1. Start with your organisation’s core values. Come up with between four to six words that you think sum up who you are as a business, what you stand for, and how you want to be perceived by your target audience. For example, one client I have worked with summed themselves up as ‘clear, concise, warm, confident’. Another was ‘straightforward, experienced, real, friendly, insightful, upbeat’.
  2. Once you are happy with your agreed choice of individual words, ask yourself: “What is the personality of our organisation?” Are you formal or fun? Are you respectful or maverick? How you sound needs to align with who you are as an organisation.
  3. Come up with a list of words that you would definitely want to use in your newly-found way of sounding and those that will be a definite ‘no no’.  Don’t forget that your new way of sounding needs to be unique to you. It’s no use deciding to sound like Innocent. They have already successfully nailed their tone of voice and carved out their niche, so there is no point in copying them. (Although many have tried, but not succeeded – in my opinion.)
  4. Once you have developed this new way of sounding, you need to encapsulate it in a clear and detailed set of guidelines with plenty of before/after examples that bring your new tone of voice to life. This will be your bible from now on. It goes without saying that the guidelines need to be written in your new tone of voice.

How to introduce it throughout your organisation

Your new tone of voice isn’t just something the marketing department starts to implement. Your new way of sounding needs to be reflected in absolutely everything you and your people write from now on. So that’s emails, letters, internal communications, web pages, newsletters, on-pack labelling, advertising, video scripts, internal signage and terms & conditions etc. It also needs to be reflected in how your people answer the phone and greet customers face to face. That means it needs to be understood and embraced by EVERYONE.

This is no easy task, as you might imagine. The first step is to hold a series of face-to-face workshops where you introduce the new tone of voice and foster a change in writing behaviour. Obviously, you can’t hold workshops and then think “job done”. Make the new guidelines available to everyone on your intranet, or via a pdf / presentation, or as a printed hard copy. Best of all, give everyone the choice of which format they would prefer to receive it in.

Next, give everyone a detailed checklist so they can double check they have adhered to the new guidelines whenever they produce a new piece of writing.

You also need refresher sessions; you need to train new staff when they join; and you need to remind, encourage and even reward people to embrace this new way of sounding.

Possible objections you might need to overcome

Don’t imagine for two seconds that it’s going to be easy to persuade everyone to change. Some of your people may regard a clearer way of sounding as a ‘dumbing down’ approach that clients won’t appreciate; others may be too ‘dyed in the wool’ to want to change; others might not be prepared to take time to learn and adopt the new style. All this is quite normal.

If the senior management team is seen to be fully behind the new tone of voice by spending time, money and effort on encouraging its use, then it should be much easier to persuade others to follow suit.

It is important to explain to objectors in the workshops why simple, clear language is a better way to communicate with others rather than using complicated, jargon-infused language. Of course, there will be those who still refuse to change, so they need to be shown lots of before and after examples. Make it easier for them by creating a whole series of templates for specific writing tasks, such as a job advert, a letter welcoming a new customer, an internal poster and so forth. They can keep them as guides to ensure they are on track. After all, it’s not easy to unlearn long-ingrained habits.

Embarking on a new tone of voice can be an arduous journey but, once you start to reap the rewards, you will be glad you did so.