How to create a tone of voice people will actually use
In my experience*, most tone of voice programmes don’t achieve as much as they should. That’s because they’re usually focused on the wrong things.
Real talk if you’re thinking about how your business writes: you probably don’t need a ‘distinctive’ tone of voice, you just need to make most of your writing less terrible. The bigger a company you work for, the truer that’s likely to be.
When I was a consultant, clients would spend a lot of time worrying about the fine nuances of their tone, and how it separated them from the competition when it came to marketing. But in truth lots of business writing is just honkingly bad, and making a bit of it better doesn’t change much.
If you genuinely want a tone of voice that customers will recognise and appreciate, you need to make the gap between your best and worst writing as narrow as possible.
Inconsistency in how you communicate gives your brand a split personality, and means people don’t believe the ‘good’ stuff because they only see it when you’re trying to sell them something.
Think as a customer for a moment: are you ever really that impressed by a well-written advert, or marketing email? Most companies do those things well, so it’s hard to stick out. Plus our bullshit detectors are pretty finely tuned these days.
I believe people form a much stronger opinion of what you’re like when things go wrong. How do you write when people are behind on repayments? How do your customer service team handle complaints? What do the error messages say when your app doesn’t work?
That’s the truth of your tone of voice, and of your customer experience as a whole. It’s tangible evidence of your values in action.
So if you’re trying to change how people feel by just sprucing up your marketing writing, then this isn’t the guide for you. (Good luck, I wish you well, but I think you’re largely wasting your time.)
The real benefits come from creating something that lives and breathes everywhere — and that in itself is very distinctive, because so few companies manage it.
So: if there’s anyone still reading, over the next few blog posts I’ll explain how I’ve gone about it and what’s worked in the past.
- Part 2: Getting people’s buy-in for a proper tone of voice programme
- Part 3: Developing principles, writing guidelines, and getting them signed off
- Part 4: Rolling the tone of voice out so people actually use it
- Part 5: Embedding it into the culture so it stays forever and ever, amen
* Creating and embedding tones of voice for companies like Santander, British Gas, NatWest, Hogan Lovells, William Hill, Barclays (and Barclaycard), the SRA, Royal London and Savills at agency The Writer. More recently looking after all things words at my forever home, Monzo.