What’s all the fuss about tone of voice?

By Barnaby Benson

Every now and then in business, something we’d all been taking a bit for granted suddenly becomes a hot topic. In the world of branding, that something is tone of voice. The brand guides that are produced at the end of a brand review used to hardly mention language. Now they have larger and larger ‘Tone of Voice’ sections. Some communications consultancies are even employing people with the title, Head of Brand Language. There are regular articles in the communications trade press. There are hot disputes in the letters columns. What’s going on?

As a professional copywriter, working for many large companies across a wide range of industries, I am sent these tone of voice sections all the time as part of the briefing process. I have to say that most of them leave a lot to be desired. The majority describe the brand with five or six adjectives and hope that’s enough for you to capture what they claim is the brand’s unique tone. It isn’t enough. There are several other language factors which complicate the use of language to support brand positioning. These tend to be given far too little thought.

This article aims to identify these main factors and make some suggestions as to how we might harness them to serve a brand and even help differentiate it.

1: Written language isn’t like visual language

Tone of voice guidelines tend to be part of an overall brand book explaining what you can and cannot do when preparing communications for a brand. Perhaps because they sit amongst the detailed visual language guidelines setting out colour palettes, templates and typographical styles, there’s a temptation to think that language can be pinned down and directed in the same way. In fact, written language works entirely differently.

Words have meanings you can look up in dictionaries and this limits your choices. If you have to express the idea of ‘a welcome greeting’, your choices are restricted to a fairly small group of words: ‘Hello’, ‘Good morning’, ‘Hi’, ‘Yo!’... Because of the limited number of words which convey the meaning you require, you are more constrained than with visual language.

2: Everybody writes but few people write well

Design is done by designers but writing is done by everybody. There are just too many emails, letters, brochures and web pages to have everything written professionally. So employees do a lot of it themselves.

This is not good news for the company wishing to use language to differentiate their brand. Large companies ensure that every significant piece of outward facing written communication is professionally written. For many B2B companies, there simply isn’t the budget or the marketing department resource to exercise this level of control.

3: Tone of voice is a confusing term

When brand people talk about ‘tone’ they usually mean its register. Register is the, ‘degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax’ (to quote the Oxford Concise Dictionary definition).

As most brands are approachable, they aim to communicate like their customers. This means a fairly relaxed, informal register: contractions (‘can’t’ instead of ‘cannot’), pronouns that suggest people rather than an institution (‘we are the best…’, rather than, ‘Joe Bloggs Ltd is the best…’). And they’ll probably allow you to start sentences with conjunctions.

The trouble is, there isn’t a huge choice of registers. You’re either formal or informal. There are varying degrees of each, but these aren’t hugely distinctive. Indeed, most companies in any one market adopt the same register because it makes sense to talk like your customers. It becomes a ‘hygiene’ factor – something everyone does just to be a player in a market. So the register of language isn’t really a source of brand differentiation at all.

4: A distinctive tone of voice can alienate

The other part of what brand people mean when they talk about tone of voice is actually attitude or personality: what the writing reveals about the way the company thinks and goes about things. These are the five or six adjectives which are often provided to define the brand.

Some brands can have a distinctive attitude but most can’t. Why? Because a single attitude will alienate people who don’t share it. (See this blog discussion if you don't believe me.) If you serve a niche market that has a distinct outlook on life, or you are positioning your brand around an approach to life, then you can have language which always has a certain attitude. Most B2B brands are in neither of these two situations. They will need fairly attitude-free language.

5: Using appropriate language for the medium and the message overrides any tone of voice considerations

Writing must be right for the medium. A web page, for example, needs to be written differently to a page in a brochure. It has to make information easy to find using short, descriptive headings, and short sentences that can be scan-read easily. This consideration is more important than making the web page ‘sound’ as if it is in a particular tone of voice. It is often possible to do both, but that requires considerable skill. Asking your employees to do it is unrealistic. Far better to get them to write well for the web – or whatever medium they are using – so that their writing doesn’t frustrate the audience. And don’t waste their time with laborious instructions about the tone of voice.

Language must also be right for the message being communicated. A letter apologising for a mistake will be written differently to one encouraging a customer to buy something. Again, this consideration will override any goals for using tone of voice to differentiate the brand. Especially as that tone of voice may simply be inappropriate for that particular message.

6: Empathy not tone

So, to write for a brand you have to first satisfy the requirements of the medium. You probably have to adopt a similar register to your competitors. You might not be able to adopt a distinctive attitude for fear of alienating people. And, you have to rely on employee-writers much of the time to get all this right. It would seem a huge challenge to achieve distinctive, customer-pleasing language with all these constraints. What can we do to use language so that it does support your brand?

I think the answer is simple to say but hard to do. We should encourage writers to think of the audience, to seriously consider how customers feel and write in a way which shows sympathy for those feelings. That is the biggest difference language can make for a brand.

It is so unusual for writing to show genuine empathy – a keen understanding of what the reader is feeling – that it can stop you in your tracks when you see it. This is best illustrated by an example.

When I was growing up, I used to see this sign in what we then called, ‘off-licences’. It was accompanied by a picture of a referee holding up a red card:

No! It’s against the law to sell alcohol to anyone under 18. Don’t ask!

Tesco have worded the same message somewhat differently:

If you’re lucky enough to look under 18, please do not be offended if we ask to see some ID if you want to buy alcohol.

The writer has realised that there’s every likelihood of sounding bossy and alienating the customer. They have come up with a witty and flattering way of conveying the same information as the rather dictatorial alternative from the off-licence.

The need for empathy goes beyond awkward situations like this. Less waffle and more openness could improve many annual report and accounts. Why? Because the reader of an annual report wants insights, not obfuscation. Many sales letters would be more persuasive if they showed greater understanding of what the recipient felt about the product and then addressed that feeling. Why don’t more sales letters do this? Probably because the writers don’t know enough about their audience as no one has taken the trouble to tell them. In fact, plenty of written business communications would be more welcomed and valued by customers if they showed more consideration for the audience. As a result, the audience would have a better impression of that brand. Language would have made its contribution to improving the brand equity.

What you can do: a summary
If you want language to support your brand:

Is it worth it?

The rewards of effective writing are great but hard to quantify. Write well and your websites will be visited by more people for longer. Your brochures will be believed more and will persuade better. Sales letters will convert a greater percentage of prospects into customers. Your annual report and accounts won’t send anyone to sleep. It is worth getting language right.

Opinion piece commissioned for an in-house brochure for Radley Yeldar. Used with permission. Views expressd are those of Barnaby Benson and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Radley Yeldar.

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