I recently launched a new guide called ‘Finding Your Brand’s Voice’, which aims to help companies pin down an effective way of communicating to their customers.
While I tried to make the guide as practical and easy-to-use as possible, at times I felt aware of the pesky gap between theory and practice. In turn, this blog gives a more personal account of the challenges I’ve faced in my own work, and shares some of the things I’ve learnt so far.
I started working as Distilled’s Copy Editor in July of last year. The job advert had called for someone to ‘own the voice of Distilled’, a role which would require me to shape and document a particular way of writing. Six months in the London office and I now act as a kind of ‘conscience of language’; I’m the annoying person who questions our application of grammar or who, say, points out when words are used in conflicting ways. In turn, the answers I gain here feed into the larger question of what constitutes the Distilled ‘voice’.
The Challenges of Finding a Voice
With over 60 staff spread across London, New York and Seattle, Distilled has many different personalities and perspectives, not to mention varying dialects. How was I supposed to develop a single voice that represented the whole company? I still don’t have a definitive answer to this question but here are some pointers I thought worth sharing.
A few lessons learnt
1) Get to know the company and its values
A tone of voice should come about fairly organically. It’s not about creating something entirely new but, rather, it involves a process of refining and shaping what is already there.
The main way I learnt about the company was, of course, by becoming immersed in all its goings-on. While looking at other people’s writing (for both internal and external communications), I paid attention to the particularities of how people expressed themselves - for example, the use of phrasing, favourite/favorite words...oh and the differences in American versus British English.
I also asked my colleagues to name other companies with tones of voice they thought worked well. Researching these was a good way of gaining perspective and reminding myself of all the different possibilities out there. (By the way, a few favourites were Moz, MailChimp, Bonobos, Arena Flowers and Hubspot.)
2) Make gradual changes
While ‘Finding Your Brand’s Voice’ suggests producing a set of tone of voice guidelines, the point at which you do this will depend on your particular situation. Having only been at Distilled a short while, I haven’t yet shared a comprehensive document on all of our copy. Instead, I have tried making small, incremental changes in various different places. This has allowed me to test people’s responses, both internally and externally. On the more technical side of things, I have set up A/B Optimizely tests on our website copy in order to measure effectiveness. (For more information on our use of Optimizely, see Cheri’s post.) Making lots of small changes over a period of time has also given my colleagues plenty of opportunities to discuss and debate what does and doesn’t work.
3) Collaborate with others
To my mind, the process of developing a company tone of voice should always be collaborative. People can be sensitive to the use of language and an overly dogmatic approach may cause resistance to new ways of writing. Moreover, consulting the wider team will most likely generate plenty of ideas and valuable opinions on the subject.
I have recently begun to devise a set of guidelines for marketing and events emails. These are all sent out under Founder Will Critchlow’s name yet are written by several different people. (Will does take the time to read and reply to every response himself, though!) Will’s ‘voice’, then, sometimes lacks consistency and a feeling of authenticity. A set of guidelines would help us to, first of all, agree on the nature of the ‘voice’ and, second of all, actually stick to this usage. To get the ball rolling, I produced a first draft of guidelines which listed key characteristics of Will’s ‘voice’, such as ‘Will’s voice should embrace the role of the British gentleman’. I then asked people to make comments, changes and additions which, subsequently, sparked different debates and pinpointed issues needing our attention.
Once a set of guidelines has been agreed on and put in place, I will see how well these function. How tightly do people conform to them? Perhaps the guidelines will prove to be too restrictive or else too vague, for example. It seems likely that amendments will be needed and the guidelines will evolve over a few months. My long-term plan is to adapt and expand this set of guidelines so it can be applied to copy on the website, slidedecks and other marketing materials. In this way, the email guidelines will act as a kind of ‘road test’ to see what works and what needs adjustments.
4) Know when to allow for different voices
There may be times when people will want to speak in their own voice, rather than conforming to the official company one. In Distilled’s case, this applies to our content posts. Almost everyone in the company pens articles and this variety of authors - each with their own area of knowledge - is no bad thing. Moreover, in many cases, our authors are known personalities in the industry. It would, therefore, seem counter-intuitive to stifle people’s own recognisable voices in favour of the company one.
The Shape of Things to Come
Various challenges await me and the marketing team in the next few months. We are currently trying to improve our editorial process for blogs and feature writing. The idea is to avoid last-minute high-stress writing and proofreading, in favour of a more thoughtful and considered approach that allows us time to ask our Creative team for their artistic touch. We will also support new posts with complementary content, all displayed on our lovely new Resources page.
Meanwhile, the American versus British English debate still looms. While Will Critchlow’s ‘voice’ suggests the British option, many of our clients are American and expect this to be reflected in our copy. In addition, we may introduce a brand mascot at some stage, following on from our musings on the subject.
If you’d like to read more about my ideas on language, take a look at ‘Finding Your Brand’s Voice’. What’s your own take on tone of voice? Got any tips you’d like to share?