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How to define your brand’s Tone of Voice

Is your company more…

  • ‘Rock up to the breakfast bar and ask for a tequila sunrise to kickstart your day’;
  • or ‘Rise before dawn if you’d like to see the elephants playing at the watering hole’;
  • or perhaps, ‘As the skies transform from inky black to energising blue, you’ll feel your spirits soar as you join your fellow travellers for a sunrise salutation on the roof.’

Three different ways to start the day – and three completely different writing styles. 

But unless you’ve defined your brand’s Tone of Voice, you could easily find all three of these on your website – thoroughly confusing your potential customer.

What your Tone of Voice tells customers is simply who you are and if you’re right for them. 

Why Tone of Voice matters

Without a defined Tone of Voice, when Jane writes for your website, she’ll use her own style, and when Mark writes, he’ll use his. And while a little variation in personality from each writer is fine – and sometimes even desirable – they need guidelines to ensure they seem part of your brand’s family, not just some random hackers who have taken over your site. 

Professional journalists and copywriters are dab hands at discerning and adapting our styles to different publications. But chances are, your team isn’t made up of professional journalists and copywriters. You’re probably asking random members of staff to write different bits for your website, or employing ad hoc freelancers, who vary, depending on availability. 

But even if you have one dedicated professional writer, unless they are the CEO or Founder, they will need some guidance to write in your company’s Tone of Voice. 

That makes having a Tone of Voice guide vital. People who rarely write anything other than emails or WhatsApps aren’t likely to be able to understand how you want your brand presented online, even if they’ve worked there for years.

The long and short of it

Your Tone of Voice will not be a long document. In fact, it needs to be as short as possible to make it a quick and easy reference. Nonetheless, you will need to allocate a reasonable amount of time to create it. 

As the French mathematician Pascal said, ‘I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.’

Creating a short, digestible Tone of Voice guide that is easily understood by a wide variety of writers takes a lot more work than you’d think. 

Here’s a step by step guide to tone of voice. 

  1. Define your audience
    Who are you speaking to? Who are you trying to attract?

    No brand – not even Coca Cola or Google – targets everyone on earth, and those that attempt to do so usually fail. Is your target audience university students taking a gap year, families on their annual two-week break, or retirees globetrotting into their golden years?

    You can have more than one target audience, but you need to clearly define each one, and allocate different parts of your brand’s content to each. A blog that is meant to appeal to everyone will appeal to no-one.

  2. Do a content audit
    Simply put, read your own website and social media pages, and highlight the bits that speak to your audience, and those that don’t. Using Google Analytics can help, but only for entire pages. When you’re trying to decide what’s working on each page, tools such as HotJar can help, but you’ll need a few months for these to do their work, so if you’re short of time, you could try asking some of your target customers for their input.

    If your company is large, you could set up some workshops with the team to get their thoughts on what’s working and what’s not. Anyone who deals directly with customers will be helpful here, but also anyone else who uses the website regularly.

    But you’ll need to ensure they’re up to speed with who your current and new (if different) target audience is, as well as your company’s latest mission statement and brand goals.

  3. Look outside your website
    Now look at competitors and related websites and publications. Pull out examples you think would work for your brand and that speak to your audience, and those that are of similar topics but that you feel have the wrong style for your brand.

    So if you’re a B2B energy company, look at your competitor’s websites, but also energy industry magazines, blogs, membership newsletters and websites.

  4. Analyse the good and the bad
    Now you have the best and worst examples, separate them and analyse them. Ascertain the patterns in each – what makes some work, and others not?

    We’re not going to lie. This part isn’t always easy. Unless your company has trained writers and editors, this will take a lot of time, thought, research and effort. But it’s key to your Tone of Voice.

  5. Write it down
    Now you’ve done all of the above, you need to create a concise, easy-to-understand document that details what your style is – and, just as importantly, what your style isn’t – giving examples in each case.

    You might need to break it down into different sections for different parts of your website, such as client communications and social media – i.e. your style might differ on Twitter versus your blog posts, and be slightly different again for sales emails.

  6. Train your staff
    This can’t be stressed enough. Just giving staff a booklet and telling them to get on with it is a waste of your time and effort. The printed Tone of Voice guide needs to be seen as a reference, not a learning tool.

    You need to have training sessions with anyone in your company who does customer-facing writing – emails, social media, company blogs, product listings – as well as anyone who commissions copywriters so they know how to brief them properly. These sessions don’t have to be long, but they do need to be thorough, and allow plenty of time for questions and discussion.

  7. Fix your site
    Now you know what your Tone of Voice is, you need to go back and amend your website to the new, improved style.

Once complete, you should see your customer engagement grow, and your sales efforts better rewarded as you speak to your target audience in a style that spells out who you are, and how you’re the right fit for their needs. 

Define your brand's Tone of Voice

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