Copywriters and marketers like to spend a lot of time talking about “tone of voice”. There are thousands of blog posts that discuss it, and workshops and seminars that help you develop it. If you’re lucky enough to have a style guide, that’s usually where you’ll find a tone of voice section. And “How would you describe your brand’s tone of voice?” is often one of the first questions that copywriters ask when working with a new client.
That’s because nailing it down is extremely important. It reflects the core values and principals of your company. And when I say “core values”, I don’t mean some squishy, fluffy marketing term. I’m talking about the essential and enduring tenets of your organisation like Collins and Poras talk about in their article, “Building your company’s vision”.
Your tone of voice is built on the values that support your business. It basically gives your customers an idea of what to expect when buying your products or using your services.
Vikki Ross summed this up best on the excellent All Good Copy podcast (hosted by Glenn Fisher) where she described tone of voice as the “verbal identity” of a business; that’s the impact it has on your customers.
The copy for some brands is so identifiable that readers can sometimes guess who wrote it or where it was published. Like this article on my personal blog that was originally intended for LWN.net but was beaten out by another that covered the same topic.
Heh, I did write it for LWN, but I was too slow and Jon published one first. It's nice to hear I nailed the LWN voice though ;-)— Matt Fleming (@fleming_matt) July 31, 2017
As for the mechanics of writing, tone of voice influences everything from the way you write to the words you use.
So if it influences how you write and if it shapes your customer’s expectations of your brand, you need to keep things consistent. Because consistency leads to trust. Repeated exposure to a consistent tone of voice builds a rapport with your audience and helps them get to know your business.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adapt what you’re saying to the situation you’re writing for. There are two parts to your brand’s tone of voice (tone and voice) and they are used differently.
Tone can change but your voice stays the same
Just like the voice you speak with, your brand’s voice should remain the same. Always. Your core values don’t change, and neither should your brand’s voice.
On the other hand, tone should change to suit the situation. You’re not going to write copy the same way to get readers to sign-up to a newsletter and to help them reset their password. Those are two totally different scenarios that call for distinct tones (motivational versus helpful). Of course, if you write copy for two sign-up pages, those should definitely have a consistent tone and voice.
Consistency trumps individuality
I’ve read a few articles that claim your tone of voice should be unique, and the anecdote above about being able to identify a brand seems to support that. But it’s simply not true.
In fact, being different can work against you. Readers have expectations that are based on the industry your business operates in. Most industries have well-established templates for tones of voice (Neville Medhora wrote an excellent piece on that). There’s value in writing the way your customers expect and not freaking them out with copy that conflicts with their preconceptions (unless that’s how you position your brand).
If a life insurance brand cracks jokes and makes light of death, that’s going to have consequences for their brand image. On the flip side, copy for a business that rents out children’s bouncy castles shouldn’t read like a legal document.
But whatever tone of voice you come up with it needs to be consistent. Because having a unique tone of voice isn’t the goal. Accurately reflecting your business is.