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Tone of Voice Guidelines Don’t Work: Here’s How to Fix Them

Tone of Voice guidelines represent a lot of what’s wrong with content today. They tell us how to say things, rather than what we should be saying. They focus on beautiful words, rather than the substance behind them.

There’s no doubt writing in a pleasing way helps readers take in what you’re saying. And, there’s no doubt we should be focusing on creating a voice that sounds just as we want the brand to.

It is also true that all of the content a brand produces should be written in the same voice. So much joy comes from seeing something from a brand and being able to recognise exactly who they are from the first word of an article, or the first second of an advert.

But how brands speak should be a small part of what makes up a brand identity.

During initial briefings or scope of work calls with clients looking for Key Messaging, we’re often asked to create a Tone of Voice document to go along with it.

But even that misses the point.

Tone of Voice documents are based on crumbly foundations

Current Tone of Voice guidelines are created to fit neatly into the same guide as the rules you use for your brand’s design. In doing so, they’re trying to squeeze themselves into strict writing rules. These rules might make total sense for design – designers need an idea of shapes, colours, fonts etc. But writing is a completely different beast.

We’re creatives too. Writers should be good at thinking about what we actually need to be able to start writing, rather than fitting in nicely with a separate discipline.

Tone of Voice guidelines focus on style over substance

We spend months working on brands’ Positioning, finding their differentiator, point of view, nailing down the target audience, creating concrete archetypes and attributes, and lots more.

Once we’ve identified and documented all of the concrete, foundational elements of the brand, only then can we create the abstract messaging and words that go on top of it.

In short, we focus on what the brand should be saying first, and how they should be saying it second. Substance, then style. This means the brand’s slogan, content and everything else they produce will be memorable, actually mean something, and instantly connect with customers who need the product.

Tone of Voice documents are too abstract

A Tone of Voice guide is a creative document that demonstrates a brand’s values. But, too often the focus is on the words to use and the abstract wording behind these values.

To really get people to focus on the position of the brand and the concrete differentiators (ways to back up your Tone of Voice and get customers to believe in you), you need a document that goes deeper.

The brand document needs to show anyone writing for the company how to demonstrate the core archetype and attributes. It needs to bring in all of the facts and information that actually set the company apart. Finally, it needs to arm the writer with all of the information they need to persuade the customer.

Everyone can say they have the best products, but customers are consuming an unbelievable amount of content every day. 100,000 of them in fact – that’s about the same number of words as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

What we mean to say is – they’re pretty savvy. You can’t just lure them with pretty words that don’t mean anything. They need evidence. They need to see something they haven’t seen a thousand times before. They need a reason to believe.

Whoever’s writing for you, creating your strategy or just answering ‘So what do you do?’ at a networking event, needs to be armed with all of this information. Sure, our documents contain Tone of Voice guidance – but that isn’t the main event.

Tone of Voice guidelines make everyone sound the same

Trust us, we’ve worked on hundreds of Tone of Voice documents over the years. And it’s true – there are quite a few repeat offenders that we see crop up a lot.

This is because a lot of these documents muddle up the basics of a brilliant style of writing with the brand’s Tone of Voice. This leads to everyone sounding exactly the same.

For example, most tones of voice suggest the brand is ‘positive’. But writing positively is simply better for the reader (most of the time) and better for Google. It encourages the writer to create active sentences, rather than passive. Plus, most of us would prefer to buy from a brand we associate with something positive.

‘Straightforward’ is another word that’s been around the block. Making complex topics easy to understand and simple to read is a basic skill for any writer. Unless you’re Ryanair or Screwfix you really shouldn’t be using ‘straightforward’ as an element of your Tone of Voice.

‘Friendly expert’ comes somewhere at the top of the list too – especially in B2B. But, really, are there any brands who would want to describe themselves as ‘aloof and ignorant’?

A great way to look at whether your Tone of Voice is actually helping you stand for something is to look at the opposite. If that sounds ridiculous (aloof ignoramus), your original option (friendly expert) doesn’t actually mean anything.

And, if you’re worried some of the important stuff about how to write well will be lost e.g. positive, expert, simple to understand – simply include a ‘good writing guide’ alongside your guidelines, as a separate section for those who don’t write for a living.

So do we still need Tone of Voice guidelines?

Yes. Tone of Voice guidelines are useful. But not in the way they’re presented now. Having 5-20 pages (we once saw 50) produced by a strategist to show their thinking simply isn’t necessary. We need a few lines within a brand document that also tells us more about the brand’s how, what, why, audience, and all of the other concrete elements behind a company. Also, give us some examples of great content written for your brand too, please.

Enter the Brand Story Guide

At Proof, we do things better (if we do say so ourselves). Our Brand Story Guide is delivered at the end of every Positioning and Key Messaging project.

It contains everything you need to get across exactly what your brand does – whether you’re a writer, video script editor, Marketing Director setting a content strategy, or just someone telling strangers what you do for a living at a dinner party.

It sets out the concrete information you can then use to build your abstract wording on top. That means it’s memorable, believable, and buyable.

Want to chat about Brand Story Guides, Positioning and Key Messaging? Get in touch.

Tone of Voice Guidelines are dead

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