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“Tone of voice reflects your brand personality, helps you connect with your audience, and makes you different from the rest” – SEMrush

Name a brand with a memorable tone of voice. If this was a question on the content marketers’ edition of Pointless – Innocent would probably be worth top points.  MailChimp, Oatly and First Direct would be up there too.  These companies have a memorable tone because they know what they want to say to the world, and most importantly, they know how they want to say it.  These brands will have a clear set of tone of voice guidelines so that just about anybody that types a word gets it right. Every time.

But you’re not Innocent. And neither should you want to be.  Innocent’s tone of voice guidelines work because they were crafted by Innocent.  The quirky style and tone comes naturally to the brand’s writers because it is a natural voice for the business that was built to disrupt and do things differently.  You’ll want to do things your way.

Why do you need brand tone of voice guidelines?

Not all marketers are natural copywriters and they don’t write all of your communications.  Your CEO, sales team, customer service team etc. all need guidance on how to create a memorable tone to set your content apart. We want every sentence and every piece of content to add value.

Your business is having big, loud conversations with your audience whether it’s through your  website content, social media posts, online product descriptions, the words on packaging, or the words to used to put things right with an angry customer. But, there are quieter moments when someone is signing up for a newsletter, filling out a form, checking out your FAQs or clicking on a welcome email. You need a consistent tone of voice in all of these places too.

Like your logo and trademark, your brand tone of voice needs to be consistent or it loses power.

Brand tone of voice guidelines - Shows a recording microphone

What do we mean by tone of voice?

Here’s a good, jargon-free definition from SEMRush: ‘Tone of voice reflects your brand personality, helps you connect with your audience, and makes you different from the rest’.

You’ll have spent a lot of time and effort getting your visual identity right – but it’s equally as important that you get your verbal identity right too.  Here’s the thing.  All the work you’ve done on  tone of voice is worthless without comprehensive accompanying guidelines.  So let’s get started.

How to create strong guidelines in 3 simple steps

1. Find your voice

Your audience wants to know what makes your brand tick.  What makes you different.  They hear the answers to all of this through your brand voice and the emotions used in your communications.

Your audience won’t necessarily get know your people – so they will look for personality traits in your brand that they can identify with. Your personality is the embodiment of why you do the things you do and how you go about doing them.

Your voice is the distinct personality your company takes on in all of your communications – it’s consistent and unchanging.

Here are a few questions to think about to start defining your voice:

  • Mission – your brand voice needs to reflect your mission (if you haven’t already drafted a mission statement, now is the time to do so)
  • Values – what does your brand stand for?
  • Personality – how would you describe your brand’s personality to a friend?
  • Audience – who are you writing for? What types of content already resonates well with your audience?
  • Content – how does your voice already sound? What do you need to dial up or dial down?
  • Feedback – ask a customer or somebody outside of your company how they would describe your business in three words.

Here’s a good snippet from MailChimp’s voice and tone guidelines on how it describes its brand voice. ‘Whether people know what they need from us or don’t know the first thing about marketing, every word we say informs and encourages. We impart our expertise with clarity, empathy, and wit’.

Shows an inspirational quote on the pavement

2. Set the right tone

What tone should should your writers adopt to consistently get your brand voice across?

Nielsen Norman Group identified 4 dimensions of tone of voice:

  • formal vs informal
  • serious vs humorous
  • respectful vs irreverent
  • enthusiastic vs matter-of-fact

Once you’ve decided where your brand falls in each dimension, you can then start to build a list of tone characteristics.  So for humorous for example – should your tone of voice be dry, witty etc.

Here are few common tone of voice traits:

  1. Encouraging, inspirational, uplifting
  2. Assertive, confident, aggressive
  3. Friendly, informative, empowering,
  4. Curious, daring
  5. Direct, straightforward, no-nonsense
  6. Dry, upbeat, witty

Brand tone of voice guidelines - Shows a toy astronaut

A quick word on humour

Some brands naturally have funny bones and they effortlessly use humour in their content.  Some brands need more time testing their material. This is what MailChimp has to say on this.

‘MailChimp has a sense of humour so feel free to be funny when it’s appropriate and when it comes naturally to you.  But don’t go out of your way to make a joke – forced humour can be worse than none at all’.

If you get stuck for inspiration the types of words that describe your tone of voice – here’s a helpful list of 37 words from Nielsen Norman.

Remember – your tone will naturally change depending on the type of communication and the context of the piece, message or situation.

3. Think about style and language

What style should your writers adopt and what type of language should they use?  If you haven’t got a full style guide – include a short paragraph on style and language.

For example, should the writer:

  • always use an ‘active’ voice?
  • avoid jargon and industry-speak and use plain English?
  • avoid using specific words or phrases?
  • write short paragraphs and sentences?
  • follow the house style on images?

Shows a Tweet from First Direct

What else?

Use real-world examples

Include examples to give writers a clear understanding of how to apply these principles.  Here’s a good example from First Direct. Banking is a serious business but the First Direct social media help team are masters at using a relaxed, friendly, informative tone – and language – to reassure customers.

Don’t try too hard

Don’t try to be ‘someone’ you’re not.  Readers are looking for an authentic voice that reflects who your brand is. They will see through any content that tries too hard.  With a robust set of guidelines, writers will be able to adopt any tone of voice – but your brand voice needs to ring true in everything you communicate. If your business isn’t fleak.  Don’t use words like this in your writing.

Apply liberally

Your brand guidelines should be accessible online (no excuses) so use any cloud storage system of choice like Google Drive.  Display them around the office, in the kitchen. Post them on your website. Your team needs to learn this stuff by rote.  Share with any outside content creators, agencies, partners, designers and stakeholders.

How long should your guidelines be?

One page is long enough. Clarity is the catchword here. Pages of tone of voice guidelines just means pages of confusion.  Okay, let’s leave it here. That’s plenty to get you started.

Final Thoughts

We hope you found our guide on how to write brand tone of voice guidelines useful. They take some time to craft, but once you have a definitive tone for your business, it’ll make a huge difference to internal and external communications. Leave us a comment or send us a message if you have any questions or need help crafting your tone of voice guidelines.

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