It’s time to silence the voice and tone guide

Steve Howe
Nov 14, 2019 · 8 min read

“We need a voice and tone guide,” says someone at your company.

Voice and tone guides are in fashion. Monzo has one. Salesforce has one. Even Texas State University has one. You don’t have one? Perhaps you feel like the kid at school relegated to playing with ants in a dirt pit while everyone else plays on their Tamagotchis.

But just because everyone has one, doesn’t mean you need one. Consider these things before committing yourself to weeks of guide writing — and save yourself the finger cramp.

“We need a voice and t — “ “ —shh” Photo by Ocean Biggshott on Unsplash

Is there a problem?

All too often a voice and tone guide gets prescribed when there’s nothing wrong with your content. Other times the prescription itself is wrong.

Let’s focus on the most common problem: people in your company are writing things in slightly different ways. Let’s say you have a sentence with a colon (:) in it. Like the first sentence in this paragraph. Now, do you capitalize the ‘p’ after it? What about the way I just wrote ‘first’ instead of ‘1st’? And can you start a sentence with ‘and’? I read somewhere it’s a horrific crime against grammar.

Knowing the answers to these questions is good for everybody. It keeps copyeditors employed — and helps readers consume content without choking on it. In essence, it makes for a smoother read. It sometimes even ensures meaning is retained.

Consider this classic example:

So it’s good to have a shared reference to help communicate what Uncle Jack is really up to.

But that doesn’t mean you need to create a guide from scratch. Writing guides have existed since 1586, when William Bullokar published his Pamphlet for Grammar in England. The interwebs weren’t around back then, so you’re better off using a modern day style guide like the New Oxford Style Manual (UK English) or the Associated Press Stylebook (US English). At Typeform we use the Chicago Manual of Style.

These guides are unlikely to cover everything you talk about. Particularly the words you’ve invented for features, products, and new worlds — like tweet, TikTok, and Poké Ball.

In which case it’s useful to have a style guide. Here’s part of ours:

So if the problem is variation in how you write your most frequently used words, get a style guide. BuzzFeed and The Guardian are both fine examples.

This has nothing to do with voice and tone.

Does it make sense to define ‘tone’?

“But we need consistency in our tone as well.”

Tone isn’t consistent. It adapts. If you tell me your pet stick insect got splattered by an e-scooter, I’m not going to greet you with my regular chirpy “good morning!” Nor will I tell a user “sweet!” after the app I developed crashed and lost all their work.

This is exactly why so-called ‘conversational’ copy can quickly get annoying. It maintains a constant, “let’s be buddies!” tone when the occasion sometimes calls for something a little less familiar.

Chatbots, for example, are risky territory. If you don’t know what someone’s going to say, it’s hard to program how — tone-wise — your bot should react. This tone-deaf chatbot succeeds only in alienating the user:

Adapting tone is the natural instinct of a good writer. A good writer thinks about the reader obsessively — their environment, their journey so far, their future intentions, their possible mood, their skill level — and writes accordingly. A good writer is not likely to consult a tone guide.

It’s pointless writing out a menu of if-user-feels-this-then-react-like-that formulas. Mailchimp did it, and they should be applauded for shining a light on exemplary user-friendly content. But it’s telling that their updated guidance on tone is just one short paragraph that basically says “consider the user’s state of mind”.

The best thing to do if you want to strike the right tone?

~Paul Campillo, Head of Brand at Typeform

Is your voice any different?

“But we still need to define our voice.”

What’s the point if it sounds the same as everyone else?

Here’s how different companies describe their voices:

Mailchimp: Plainspoken, genuine, dry humour
Salesforce: Honest, clear, fun, inspiring
Monzo: Ambitious, positive, transparent, open
Channel 4: Bold, surprising, challenging
Buffer: Relatable, genuine, inclusive, approachable, clear, informed
Atlassian: Bold, practical, optimistic
Formstack: Informal, informative, witty, smart, inspiring
Microsoft: Warm, relaxed, crisp, clear
Shopify: Confident, empathetic, transparent
Intuit: Passionate, optimistic, proactive, empathetic
Typeform: Confident, clear, human, friendly

Are you really able to adhere to all these standards? How can you tell if your writing is surprising or not? Does it need to be surprising all the time or just 28% of the time? TURDGURGLER! Is that what you meant by surprising?

These adjectives all mash together to form one, predictable homogenous mass. Like a bio on a dating app: sense of humour, kind, adventurous blah blah blah.

There’s no need for these things to be explicit. Most brands aren’t aiming for non-inclusive and dishonest (unless you’re Fyre Festival).

Here’s my colleague Rich Roberts:

Over the years, the default voice of the internet has shifted from stilted and formal to friendly and informal. So you should only explicitly state your voice is X if it’s out of the ordinary. As a writer, I need to know if the brand I’m writing for is offensive, sassy — or as stuffy as a BBC broadcaster from the 50’s. I don’t need to know it’s approachable.

Cards Against Humanity’s product lends itself to a unique voice. Here are their FAQs. Rude. But on brand.

Writers can also interpret things in different ways. One person’s relaxed is another person’s flippant:

‘Sup dawg, like, welcome to Typeform.

This stuff normally gets ironed out by the editing process — not the guide.

If you must write a voice guide, avoid fluffy abstractions and include genuinely practical information:

  • We reference obscure 80’s sitcoms at least once per page.
  • We insult our competitors via snarky one-liners.
  • Our headers are always emoticons ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

At Typeform, our most practical piece of information on voice is that we’re a bit eccentric. This signals to new and freelance writers that we’re okay with their niche jokes.

Is voice just about the words?

If you think about it, the concept of voice and tone is a bit silly. You can’t have one without the other. Your voice always comes with tone. Otherwise it’s just a silent, gaping mouth.

People (us included) have tried to define voice as “a brand’s personality that never changes.” But it’s impossible to convey personality through words alone — which is why it’s nonsensical to define ‘voice’ within the content/copy bit of your guidelines.

In her book Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch argues that emojis have become popular because they incorporate gestures 👇

We turn to emojis as a way to be more human online. Just like brands turn to visuals and face-to-face interactions to connect with customers in a more human way. So if you want to define your brand’s personality, fine. But don’t file it away under ‘voice’ in your writing guidelines.

You probably don’t need a voice and tone guide

If you’re looking to elevate your content, a voice and tone guide isn’t the answer. It’s pointless busywork. You’ll spend days creating a document that gets hidden away in your intranet. Half the company will look at it once then never look again. “You know,” you’ll whine. “Our voice and tone guide. We launched it a few months ago.” Cue blank stares. You’ll feel obliged to update it, watching it die a slow death as people reluctantly pop their heads in because you sent a link to it for the fourth time this week. Then, finally, you’ll leave the company, and it will be buried forever — even the senior member of staff who insisted you put it together “by end of Q2” will have left, only for another, newer senior member of staff to suggest that maybe the new copywriter should put together some sort of voice and tone guide.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if it’s just you creating 100% of the content, you are the guide. No extra work needed — just write.

If you’re lucky enough to have a team of writers, nothing beats constant two-way feedback with a healthy culture of challenging each other.

Here’s Eric, Head of Content at Typeform:

I’m not saying don’t write a guide. You might need a guide — but not necessarily for writers. We sent out a survey to engineers, designers, and product managers because we wanted to help them think about — and perhaps even co-create — the content that lives in our product.

As a result of the survey — and through face-to-face conversations — we discovered our product teams wanted to know how we named new features, when to request translations, and how to write common messages if copywriters weren’t immediately available.

We put it all in our guide:

And yep, we have voice and tone pages. But nobody really uses them.

“But we need, we need…”

No, you don’t.

Writing at Typeform

Stories from the writers at Typeform

Steve Howe

Written by

UX writer, copywriter, translator, language teacher. I do words and that at Shopify, Toronto.

Writing at Typeform

Stories from the writers at Typeform

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