5 reasons why your Tone of Voice isn’t a Tone of Voice.

Posted on May 26, 2016 By

Tone of Voice guidelines can be very powerful for a brand – if they’re used well. Language is an incredibly effective way to help differentiate you from your rivals – and build a company culture that matches the brand’s ambitions. But it’s easy to spend time on guidelines that don’t add any value.

Having worked with many brands on their language, here are the five most common fails we’ve spotted:

1. Your Tone of Voice just describes good style.

If your guidelines include values like ‘clear’ or ‘straightforward’ or ‘professional’, stop and think for a minute. Why would any brand or organisation not want to be any of those things?

Guidelines such as ‘clear’ or ‘accessible’ are really just directions to write well. No one wants to be unclear or inaccessible. And, given that writing well is something all businesses aim for, it doesn’t differentiate your brand at all.

Not that we’re averse to writing well, quite the contrary. It’s just not a tone.

Writing well has been more than adequately defined over the years. The Economist Style Guide sums it up neatly: The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible. Keep in mind George Orwell’s six elementary rules.

Praising the virtues of clearer writing is still important. We work with a lot of universities where it’s absolutely imperative to stress the merits of a clearer, simpler style to bring wordy academics to heel. But we need to add a value that separates them from the rest of the pack on top of that.

2. The guidelines aren’t signed off from the top.

The most common gripe on any writing workshop is: ‘that’s all very well for you to say, but my boss won’t like it.’

Most writers, creative or otherwise, struggle with a lack of confidence that they’re writing the best way for the business. If your Tone of Voice guidelines aren’t supported from the top down, it’s quite likely that they won’t catch on with anyone other than the marketing team that commissioned them.

Get buy-in from the top and make sure that the guidelines contain a foreword from the Chief Exec, or some other top banana, stressing the importance of a brand language. Even better, make a short film to play at the start of any workshop you might run (should run – see point five).

3. Your guidelines aren’t usable by the people that need them.

The more people who use your Tone of Voice guidelines the better. Teams in customer service or sales really benefit from writing on brand. But they’re not used to marketing speak. So if your guidelines waffle on about brand strategy or vision, or contain endless diagrams of ‘brand eyes’ or essences, you’ll lose their interest.

Cut to the chase, explain why writing in a certain way will help them do their job better and make a stronger business.

And don’t give them too much to think about. We see Tone of Voice guidelines that contain so many values, they’re impossible to follow. No one can quickly judge their writing against 9 or 10 different criteria. So make sure the values you choose are simple to remember – three at most.

If the guidelines are really for agencies or the marketing team who understand their brand pyramids from their vision statements, then feel free to include more of this. But don’t rely on it improving their writing.

4. Your guidelines are part of a design manual

In section you’ll find a description of our tone of voice. When design agencies put together design manuals, including fonts, Pantone references, good and bad uses of the logo and much, much more, they stick in a page on brand language for good measure.

This is never going to be read. Deal with it in a separate Tone of Voice piece.

And, actually, don’t rely on even that being read (see point 5).

5. Your Tone of Voice is a PDF that is ‘filed’ for reference.

Any Tone of Voice booklet, or manual or crib sheet, will probably refer to the amount of writing customers have to get through. They’ll stress the need to keep it short, cut to the chase etc. All in a document that may itself never be read.

Far better to bring the whole idea of a brand language alive in a workshop. That way your team get to practise writing in a certain way under the eye of an expert. And they can compare notes with each other and create a more supportive culture.

A workshop is also a great opportunity to explain the brand. In fact we often describe Tone of Voice as ‘branding by stealth’, because it’s the one facet of a brand that anyone can add value to.

If you avoid all these fails then you will have created Tone of Voice guidelines that help your team, that create a more consistent image for your brand, and that mean a better experience for your customers.




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This post was written by Richard Spencer