“I’m sorry, the copy still isn’t quite right.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel like the sort of thing we’d say.”
“Oh, I see. Could you send over a copy of your tone of voice guidelines?”
“A tone of what now?”
Hands up if this conversation feels familiar. The chances are, you’ve been in a similar situation at some point in your career, either as the client or the consultant.
I know I have. As a writer, editor and marketer at Method Marketing, there have been times when I’ve revised content several times over, especially at the start of my career. The client was unable to brief me correctly, or explain what was wrong, so we’d spend hours reworking the content, wasting both our time and resources.
Now that I’m more experienced, I know that a brand tone of voice document could have resolved many of those issues. It would have helped the client to explain how I should address their audience, saving us both a lot of frustration.
A brand tone of voice guide tends to be part of your brand identity. It’s a useful aid for both internal teams and external consultants, providing consistency across content regardless of who is writing. In the age of relationship marketing, how you communicate is as important as your logo, fonts and color palette.
If your business doesn’t have this pinned down yet, I’ve compiled five simple steps to help you create a bulletproof brand tone of voice document. There is just one caveat: If possible, include key stakeholders in the process. This ensures buy-in across your organization, which makes life — and document sign-off — easier in the future.
Explore Your Brand Personality
Be sure to have your brand values and audience personas in hand for the first step. That's because your brand’s personality must reflect your core values and your audience’s preferences.
Start by listing 5 to10 characteristics of your brand as if it was a person. Then counterbalance each quality against a negative so you create some boundaries for the personality. For instance:
- Positive, not unrealistic
- Irreverent, not mean.
- Knowledgeable, not patronizing.
- Formal, not stuffy.
When you get stuck, return to your customer profiles. What’s likely to resonate with them? If you’re working for a law firm, for instance, your audience might want you to be experts without being intimidating, formal without being humorless.
A great example of this is the British brand Innocent Drinks. While many people have grown tired of their tone, it’s very distinctive. Their personality is quirky, friendly and comical without being rude, ridiculous or negative — and it’s consistent across all channels.
Analyze Other Brands
Unless they work with words every day, your team is unlikely to have considered what they like and dislike about language. So, to get started, I ask my clients to take a look at other brands, both inside and outside of their industry.
They should identify what they like and what they don’t before exploring how the tone fits with their brand values and their clients.
To keep track of this information, I create a table with four columns:
- Brand name
- Obvious linguistic devices (i.e. contractions, conjunctions, slang)
- Do we like/dislike the device?
- Is the device appropriate for our brand?
Running through four or five examples will help your team identify their preferences and biases before moving onto Step 3.
Dig Into the Details
This exercise forms the basis of a style guide, which is helpful for writers and editors. It cements how your brand “speaks” in a practical way. What does it say? What doesn’t it say?
Answer the following questions:
- Does your brand use contractions? Using “you’re” rather than “you are,” or “it’s” rather than “it is,” makes your tone more chatty. If you’re an informal brand, this might be perfect, but if you’re more formal, you might want your language to reflect this.
- Does your brand use slang? If you’ve defined your brand as being formal, you might avoid colloquial or explicit language. However, if your brand personality is approachable or humorous, slang might be appropriate.
- Does your brand use conjunctions to start sentences? Using “and” or “but” to start sentences is informal, and some people dislike it. If you allow conjunctions to start sentences, consider restricting the number of times this technique is used.
- Does your brand speak in the first person? Does it refer to “us” and “you,” or “Company X” and “they”? The former feels more personal, which may be a quality your brand wants to reflect.
- How does your brand use punctuation? If exclamation marks make your brand seem excitable, consider limiting them to one per document.
- Do you want to ban any words or phrases? I worked with a client who replaced every instance of the word “bespoke.” Another eliminated the word “kids.” Whether they’re overused or just feel alien to your brand, start building a list of banned words.
Once these points have been decided, write a list of do’s and don’ts. It can be helpful to write a short sentence beneath each to briefly explain why this rule has been created. For example: “Don’t use slang; our clients prefer formal language because it reinforces trust.”
Think of Your Brand as a Person
As a writer, this exercise helps me get under the skin of a brand. If I can visualize the person speaking and hear their voice, it’s easier to get the tone right. If I’m unsure, I can read their articles or watch a YouTube video so I can channel their energy.
Start by asking your team who they admire. As a prompt, take some examples to the meeting. As in Step 2, plot the names into a table. This time you need three columns:
- Admirable characteristics
- Are they a good fit for your brand?
Once you’ve completed this exercise with each member of your team, add figures your audience may look up to. Are there any overlaps? Do they fit with your brand?
Then it’s time to pick one person. Be sure that they are high profile so anyone reading the document can immediately picture them or easily find examples of their style online.
Write a short profile to explain who they are and why they are relevant to your brand.
Once you’ve been through these steps, distill the outcomes into one easy-to-digest document. Include some examples at the end to demonstrate best practices. For instance, write a short paragraph that doesn’t use any contractions, versus a paragraph that does.
When you’re done, share the brand tone of voice document widely. Make it available to external writers and agencies, so everyone is informed.
And finally, remember to return your brand tone of voice document. Your brand may evolve over time and your audience segment may shift. Revisit the document at least once a year to check that the details are in alignment, making revisions when necessary.
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