What is tone of voice?
Before we get into the mechanics of how we crafted our new tone of voice, first let’s clarify what a tone of voice is. Your tone of voice is your company’s attitude and personality. It is evident in your written communications, visual identity and even how you connect with people.
In short, it’s:
- Not just what you say, but how you say it
- The cadence, rhythm and pacing of how you deliver your message
- Considered and consistent communication
- Your personality which helps to build trust and create a point of difference from your competitors
Why tone of voice is important
In the words of Joe Moran, “the best writing is self-consistent”. To create an identity for something as amorphous as a company, there need to be guidelines in place for your team to follow. Your tone of voice is important because it crops up everywhere –
- Dealing with clients and any issues they might be facing
- Speaking at public events and showcasing your expertise
- Talking to staff or delivery partners over email
- Creating content on behalf of the company
You communicate with your voice at every point. It’s also a mistake to think your copywriters or content team are the only people who will need these guidelines. As the above examples show, it’s everyone who works for your company.
How we made our tone of voice
Now that we understand the influential role tone of voice can play in your company (and ultimately, its success), how do you create a tone of voice? When my team and I sat down to think about the kind of company we wanted to work in everyday one of the first conversations we had was how we wanted to sound. We’re a considerate bunch, so we wanted to make sure we were communicating effectively with one another.
The process of us crafting our tone of voice came down to three core elements:
- A tone of voice workshop
- A lot of further reading (some might have called it obsessive)
- The production of a tone of voice document
By taking each of these elements seriously and treating ourselves as if we were the client, we were able to take a laser-focused look at our voice. We had to give ourselves the time to do this or we would produce something unusable. We’d never do that for a client, so why would we do it to ourselves?
I can’t say this loud enough; we love a good workshop. It’s one of the first things we’ll suggest when working with a client and one of the first things we’ll do when we’re stuck on a problem. Our tone of voice workshop was no different. Since starting, we’ve delivered a number of tone of voice workshops for many wonderful businesses. So, my first port of call was to look at all of the previous workshops we’d delivered and turn them into The Ultimate Tone of Voice Workshop Masterclass Super Fun Time* (*Title needs work).
Here are all of the elements I included:
Examples of brands we admire
By looking at how other people pull off their tone of voice, you can learn a lot about what you like or don’t like about their execution. Because we wanted to see how people we admired showcased their tone of voice, we took an in-depth look at:
- Code Computer Love
- AJ & Smart
When we analysed their tone of voice we looked at how they executed case studies, social media campaigns, website copy and blog posts. We noted what we thought worked well (Dinosaur’s Pets at Home case study is one of my favourites) and things we would have done differently. We discussed this as a team, noting down key insights and how we might apply it to ourselves.
Once we’d had a love-in for some of our favourite brands, we then looked at our target audiences. All this prettyfing has a purpose; we want to attract the kinds of clients we want to work with. So, all of this hard work needs to translate into something tangible for our target audiences. This part we treated as a separate session and asked the following questions:
- Who are we communicating to? (How do they like to be addressed?)
- What are their pain points? (What will turn our audience off?)
- Where are our audiences spending time? (Preferred platforms?)
- How are our audiences finding us? (Search/ social/ referral)
Then we collected our thoughts together and pinned them to the wall. We did this so we wouldn’t lose sight of the outcome of all of our hard work; working on fun projects we want to be involved in.
The company has changed so much since it started in April 2018 that I wanted to create a new set of values that reflected everyone. Ones we could all look at and say “that feels like us”. When we were looking at defining what these values might be, we asked the following questions:
- What excites us about the work we do?
- What is the purpose of our work?
- What do we want our reputation with clients to be?
- What do we want our reputation with delivery partners to be?
- Describe what it is we do
We thought about each of these elements individually, noting our thoughts down and then shared them as a group.
Here’s what we agreed on:
Our experiences, references and passions make us. Let’s embrace them and bring them to work every day.
Collaboration over competition
Our work is made better by everyone who gets involved. Lift each other up and listen.
Always be learning
We’re only as good as the last thing we learned. Possess a thirst for knowledge.
Care about quality
Well delivered work helps to win us the work we want to work on. Quality is our mark.
Improvement not perfection
Strive to do better than to be the best. By practicing improvement we can get closer to ‘done’.
Defining a personality can be tricky as it’s not just for one person. Your brand’s personality is the makeup of your team, the work you want to win, the impact you want to have, the feeling you want to leave people with. Agreeing on what that personality looks like can cause some heated debate. To tackle this challenge head on, I asked one question to my team; how do we want to sound? Then, we looked at a big list of juicy, exciting words and picked through the ones that felt most like us.
We went for:
Once you’ve settled on your descriptors, it’s important you’re specific about what each one means to your company. Language is slippery; your version of ‘smart’ is not someone else’s.
As an example, here’s how we defined ‘celebratory’ –
What we mean
Proud, lifting others up, positive
What we don’t mean
Arrogant or disingenuous
What celebratory means to us
To learn from mistakes, we also need to acknowledge our successes. By being proud of what we produce, celebrating when we do well and spreading happiness we are able to celebrate our work and one another. Not only do we do this for ourselves, we do it for others too. We celebrate clients successes, colleagues’ achievements and community wins. Be proud but never arrogant. We are always learning and this should be celebrated too.
By being clear about what we do and don’t mean we can keep consistent, no matter who is writing in our voice.
Our value proposition
Then, we needed to distill everything so that clients, or potential clients, could understand our offering. To do this we crafted a value proposition. I couldn’t have made this without this excellent guide from Column Five. In their post, Column Five reference Steve Blank’s XYZ template, which I used as a starting off point.
From a purely functional point of view I can up with:
“We help organisations create positive impact through content, brand and UX services”
Whilst this proposition is informative and accurate, there’s little poetry to it. So I wanted something I could hang my metaphorical hat on. I turned it into the following:
“Creating trust for brands with purpose”.
There, that feels more like us.
In summary, these are the crucial elements you need to create a top-notch tone of voice:
- Team collaboration – team work makes the dream work (and sound good)
- Competitor analysis – how are others in your arena showcasing their voice?
- Define your audience – who we do want to attract?
- Choose your values – what makes us tick?
- Craft your personality – which words describe us best?
- Hone your value proposition – why would people want to work with us?
- Read a lot – nerd out with your words out
In preparation for creating our tone of voice, and as a follow up afterwards, I set my mind to finding some shit-hot branding guides. When I was carrying out my research, these are the ones I found super useful – some of them even ended up in our tone of voice guidelines under the ‘Further Reading’ section.
- MailChimp Tone of Voice Guidelines – Voice by the masters of messaging
- Column Five Brand Guidelines – An elegant style guide by top-notch storytellers
- Bits of Code’s Accessibility Cheat Sheet – Talk to everyone equally
- Harkable’s Best Examples of Brand Tone of Voice – a connoisseur’s collection of tone of voice guidelines
- First you write a sentence by Joe Moran – this book will change how you write a sentence
Read our full tone of voice guidelines
If you’d like to read our full tone of voice guidelines, Voice, you can. Copywriters and Content Managers – feel free to use our template for your own tone of voice projects. Company Founders and Marketing Managers – you ain’t got time for that, get in touch with us and we’ll create a shiny new tone of voice, just for you.