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How do you help people to write in your company’s tone of voice?

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

When you’re looking around for guidance on tone of voice, one thing will strike you. You’ll be able to find no end of advice on how to develop a tone of voice (I’ve added to the body of literature myself). You’ll find no end of advice on what to include in tone of voice guidelines. But when it comes to taking those guidelines and translating them into the copy and content you’re writing every day, you’ll find that everyone goes strangely quiet.

It’s easy to understand the difference between two examples of content when you see them in the guidelines.

A simple tool to guide tone of voice

But how do you know you’ve nailed tone of voice when you’re writing from scratch? How do you actually write in an empowering / authoritative / outcome-focused / ambitious / [insert your particular tone of voice quality] way?

Why is it so difficult to find advice like this? Is it because it’s easy to do? Or is it because it’s too hard to teach?

I think it’s a combination of both.

When writing in your tone of voice is easy

As any developing tone of voice guidelines will tell you, your tone of voice is a reflection of who you are as a business.

Many businesses never bother to develop formal tone of voice guidelines. Instead, the people within the business just ‘get’ the way it sounds because they live and breathe its values. This is especially true in small businesses or owner-managed businesses where most of the copy is written by people with a strong personal connection with the business. They don’t need formal guidelines because the way they’re writing is instinctive.

In larger businesses, tone of voice guidelines are developed by the marketing department whether in conjunction with an external agency or not. The marketing department is responsible for writing most of the copy that goes out. They too ‘get’ the way they’re supposed to sound. Perhaps because they live and breathe the values. Perhaps because they were instrumental in defining the tone of voice. Perhaps because they’re skilled copywriters who can take a tone of voice and run with it, no matter what it is. More likely it’s a combination of these factors.

When copy is written by copywriters, whether they’re in-house or freelance, again, given the scantest of guidelines, they’ll be able to grasp what’s required.

When writing in your tone of voice is hard

The difficulties come when these types of people aren’t exclusively responsible for writing copy for the business. In other words, in the real world.

The smaller, owner-managed business grows, taking on more staff who are less intimately connected to the business’s values.

In the larger business different teams are responsible for different types of content. Technical documentation is written by the technical team. Social media posts and interactions are written by the social media team. Customer complaints are handled by the customer service team.

In the real world, copy and content is being written by people who weren’t involved in the development of the tone of voice and who aren’t skilled copywriters. Despite the best of intentions, tone of voice gets lost.

How to help when writing in your tone of voice doesn’t come naturally

So how do you help people nail your tone of voice?

Because when it comes to tone of voice there’s an element of artistry that people will either ‘get’ or they won’t no matter how carefully the guidelines are put together. You can teach people the theory of art but that won’t necessarily make them a great artist.

Or, as copywriter Tom Albrighton puts it rather more robustly than me:

Unfortunately, tone of voice guidelines will not compensate for lack of writing ability or common sense, just as brand design guidelines do not turn the average Microsoft Word user into Peter Saville. People with a tin ear for language will not be saved by rules and regulations, because writing is an art as much as a science.

So what can you do to guide these people and maintain a consistent tone of voice?

Writing is a mixture of art and science. Here are some pointers that look at both.

Keep your tone of voice guidelines simple

While there’s only so much tone of voice guidelines can give you, I do think you need to have them. But they don’t need to be weighty tomes.

As Tom Albrighton explains succinctly:

As the saying says, rules are for the observance of the foolish and the instruction of the wise. Those who ‘get it’ don’t need loads of detail, while those who don’t will be left none the wiser by it anyway. A one-page summary of your brand values, along with an explanation of how they translate into writing style, will be a huge step forward if you’ve never considered tone of voice before.

So what should the guidelines contain? I’d say the basics are:

  • your business’s mission statement and values
  • a portrait of your target customer(s)
  • the words your tone of voice should evoke and why
  • good and bad examples in different contexts that are relevant to the business (e.g. a sales letter, a set of instructions, a social media post)
  • any specific language rules (e.g. whether you use z-spellings or s-spellings [specialize or specialise] etc).

Content Strategist Kevan Gilbert says he’s had most success with this format:

Famously Slack distils its tone of voice into the simple message: “Talk as if you’re talking to a colleague you like and admire. That’s the baseline.”

Explain who you are and why

The purpose of giving your business’s mission statement and values in your guidelines is because so much of tone of voice is about feeling. The reason the owner-manager of a business is able to nail tone of voice time after time is because they live and breathe the values that inform it. It follows that it pays dividends to communicate your values to your employees and encourage them to share them.

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is the primer on this. Companies such as Brand New Story take it one step further and work with businesses to develop:

a working document that acts as the guide and inspiration for everyone in your organisation who is responsible for bringing it to life (i.e. everyone).

Your Brand New Story is the heart and soul of your organisation. It runs through everything you do. It not only tells your story, it also contains your values, purpose, unique brand identity, tone of voice, key messages and vision.

When everyone is on the same page you should find this is reflected in communications with a more consistent on-message tone of voice.

Explain who you’re talking to and why

If I had to distil copywriting down into one rule, I’d say it was this: know who you’re writing to / for and why.

A case in point. I was delivering a workshop on blog writing to a team of lawyers. A section of the workshop was devoted to understanding who their target audience was (it was clients and prospective clients) and what they’d want from blogs written by lawyers. After this, I set an exercise to rework a blog in light of what they’d learned. The blog had been written a couple of months previously by one of the lawyers, although I didn’t know who. As I handed out copies of the blog, one of the attendees said: “I wrote this. And I can tell you that not one of my clients would want to read it.”

The session was a lightbulb moment for them. They had never been asked to think about their reader and they never had.

If you haven’t already done so, take time to draw up personas for your target customers. Make sure everyone who writes in the business knows these personas. Then my advice is simple. Whenever they sit down to write anything, ask them to imagine the target persona sitting opposite them. The goal is to write as if you’re talking to the person sitting opposite you. Because when you humanise the task, an awful lot flows from it.

Highlight the rules of good writing

Capturing a tone of voice has a lot to do with art, capturing a feeling using words. This will be beyond some people — everyone can understand the theory of art, not everyone can be an artist.

If you have people who struggle with the creative aspect of writing, the psychological tricks we’ve looked at will only go so far.

The good news is there is also science involved. You can at least guide people down the path of good writing where there are rules to follow. George Orwell’s rules for writing are a good starting point:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Then there’s basic readability. The Literacy Trust highlights that 16.4% of adults in England are functionally illiterate — they can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems.

An American Press Institute study revealed that:

  • When the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than eight words long, readers understood 100% of the story.
  • At 14 words, they could comprehend more than 90% of the information.
  • At 43 words, comprehension dropped below 10%.

Ask people to keep sentences short because it aids readability and it aids comprehension too. If you’re going to go to the trouble of writing something, you might as well maximise the chances of it being read and understood.

Microsoft Word offers readability scores according to the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test and Flesch Reading Ease test. The Hemingway app is another option.

Tone of voice is easy when you know how

In my career as a copywriter I’ve been given tone of voice guidelines that run over pages and pages. Equally, I’ve been no tone of voice guidelines at all. Neither is ideal, although I think that as Tom Albrighton says, less is more. I think it’s also worth remembering that although there’s a lot of mystery surrounding tone of voice, at its heart it’s a combination of two things:

  • your diction — the words you use
  • your syntax — the way you put those words together into sentences and paragraphs.

It really is that simple.

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