Finding Your Brand’s Voice

How to Shape a Tone of Voice.

Introduction

A tone of voice is not what you say, but how you say it. This encompasses not only the words you choose, but their order, rhythm and pace. Rather confusingly, when seen in the world of business and marketing, the phrase ‘tone of voice’ refers to written – rather than spoken – words. A company’s tone of voice will inform all of its written copy, including its website, social media messages, emails and packaging.

“The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low cost producer is the only winner.” Philip Kotler Professor at the Kellogg School of Management

Why is tone of voice important?

It’s an expression of the people behind the brand

The above quote points out that it’s not just what a company does, but who it is that makes it a brand. A tone of voice both embodies and expresses the brand’s personality and set of values. It’s about the people that make up the brand – the things that drive them, their loves and hates, and what they want to share with the world.

It sets you apart from the rest

A brand’s tone of voice should be distinctive, recognisable and unique. This may seem like a tall order until we consider the use of our own language in everyday life. We all employ language - both written and spoken - in our own way. Of course, culture and dialect are the most significant factors dictating our approach to words. But within these, we each have our own idiosyncrasies, favourite expressions, inflections, pace and so forth.

It builds trust

As described in such texts as ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, there is a strong link between familiarity and trust. Because something familiar requires little effort to process mentally, we are more likely to feel at ease around it. Thinking along these lines, a company must be consistent in its use of language so that its writing becomes familiar to the customer. Creating a specific tone of voice, then, plays a crucial part in this.

It can be used to influence and persuade

As American author Maya Angelou once said, "People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

It’s often the way we say something that breeds a certain feeling. People can be very sensitive to language, forming impressions of people as soon as they begin to hear or read their words.

A simple request can be articulated in different ways:
  • “You wouldn’t happen to have a pen I could borrow, would you?”
  • “Do you have a pen I can borrow?”
  • “Pass me that pen.”

Carefully chosen words can be used to persuade or influence an audience. For example, politicians tend to speak using short, simple sentences as a way of projecting the idea of honesty and self-evident universal truths. Meanwhile, financial service companies are sometimes accused of deliberately using jargon-heavy language as a way of implying a sense of superiority.

By and large, a successful tone of voice should go without notice. The aim is not for your audience to remark on your great writing but, instead, to remark on your great business.

Chapter 1

Where to begin: Your values

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A tone of voice is an expression of a company’s values and way of thinking. It cannot be plucked from thin air, created on a whim or entirely based on a trend you think is cool. Rather, it must grow out of who you already are as a company. Not who you might be tomorrow, but what you look and sound like today.

Pinning down your values acts as a kind of background work – before you can think about how you write, you must decide on what you write.

This must start with the obvious yet easily forgotten question: what is it you want to tell the world? It is only once you define the core purpose of your communication that you can start to build your tone of voice.

In order to identify your values, here are a few questions to ask yourself. If possible, get other people in your company to join in and then see what everyone’s answers have in common. (Turning this into a collaborative process may also help with getting buy-in from different departments, as discussed in my final chapter on implementation.)

Why was the company set up in the first place?

Get back to the initial spark of excitement behind the company’s creation. Beyond earning an income, what was the drive behind it all?

“The reason for the company’s existence is clear – to unclog the roads and thereby help look after the natural environment.”

Car-sharing service Zipcar asks its website visitors to ‘Imagine a world with one million fewer cars in the world’. The reason for the company’s existence is clear – to unclog the roads and thereby help look after the natural environment. This mission to encourage greener living, then, propels the rest of its copy and approach to language. For instance, its call for people to join its members club doesn’t focus on added luxury or convenience, but instead asks, ‘Want to make a real impact?’

Women’s lifestyle brand Libertine is another example of a brand that asserts a clear mission to its work. The founders wanted to ‘redefine the women’s media landscape by celebrating inner life over outer appearance’. Libertine, thus, addresses an area previously neglected by the media – inner beauty. The brand states its core values as, 'character, curiosity, wit and good manners.' In turn, these values shape its copy; for example, Libertine’s curiosity means that it asks a lot of questions, its good manners means that it avoids overly blunt sentences and commands such as ‘do this’ and ‘watch that’.

I asked founder Debbi Evans about Libertine’s approach to writing:

Debbi Evans Libertine

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  • Q. How did you go about shaping your tone of voice?

    I think it's a bit easier to define a tone of voice when you're a publication as a lot of it will come from the editor, and you've got sub editors to help you keep it consistent. A lot of it did evolve naturally as in the very early days we were still trying to work out exactly who we wanted to be, and several of our core values and interests were a bit contradictory. (I am thinking, in particular, of trying to embrace the finer things in life while being tech nerds here. The former is about luxury - traditionally a very closed and elitist subject - the latter is all about open source, collaboration, cooperation - could we embrace one without negating the other?) I think in the end if your interest and enthusiasm for both comes across as equally genuine then you're OK.

    “…it's OK to be a bit provocative!”
  • Q. Do you have any particular rules or approaches when it comes to writing?

    Do a rushed first draft to get everything onto the page - try not to self edit (this is really hard!) Then go back and rework, slowly, and read your writing out loud. There's nothing more effective for getting an idea of your tone and flow than when you're reading it out to someone; corrections are much easier.

  • Q. Was it difficult to pin down your core values?

    We almost started with our core values before anything else - a few years of research had taught me that consistency with those was key to being authentic from a consumer perspective. We looked at women we thought were awesome - Joan Didion, Angela Carter, Ada Lovelace - and tried to imagine what characteristics might be common to all of them: Wit, character, curiosity and good manners. I know the latter is a socially loaded term but it's OK to be a bit provocative!

  • Q. Is there a line or piece of copy that you are especially proud of?

    'Celebrating inner life over outer appearance' felt effective when we first used it. Women's magazines are so loaded with clichés it was important to get something that felt completely different to that.

  • Q. Are there any brands’ tone of voices that you particularly like?

    The winner is still the Economist. Monocle also deserves a nod - they've developed such a strong brand they've even got a (very funny) lorem ipsum, made by an admiring designer.

What basic human value does your company offer?

Sometimes the motivation behind a company’s work is more abstract. Rather than answering a particular social or material need, it appeals to something more spiritual.

O2 positioned itself in this way on introducing its Freedom Price Plan. Showing a man running through an open field in its TV advert, the mobile phone brand forged a link between unlimited calls and the ability to live a free and unbounded life.

How is the way you work different?

Each company has its own ways of doing things, such as the way it organises its processes or how it looks after its staff. These things will reveal its priorities and values in business.

J.Crew and Anthropologie are two brands that, arguably, do similar work – selling mid-range clothing across a chain of high street stores. Yet each has its own unique approach. J.Crew positions itself as a team of stylists and fashion curators, filling its blog with research into the design and production of garments. Its copy is meticulously constructed and full of detail.

In contrast, Anthropologie focuses less on fashion and, instead, positions its clothing as one thing among a whole world of colourful curiosities. Dipping into travel, food and music, its blog suggests a broad spectrum of interests. In this way, Anthropologie’s copy forgets the fashion-specific terminology in favour of more universal language pertaining to emotion, such as ‘romance’, ‘explore’ and ‘delight’.

The sale of beauty products tends to feature very specific types of language, depending on the values of the brand. Take Lush and L'Oréal, for example; both sell skincare products. Yet while Lush is concerned with being eco-friendly, L'Oréal alludes to notions of science and advancement.

Compare their descriptions of moisturiser:

“In these little pots is every last ounce of our experience and expertise, along with a world of high quality, natural ingredients.” Lush
“Proven science, cutting-edge innovations captured in luxurious textures for a sumptuous skin care experience.” L'Oréal

Chapter 2

Expressing personality through vocabulary

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Once you have identified your company values, you can start thinking about your personality. (If values are what you say, personality is how you say it.)

It’s easy to assume you want a down-to-earth chatty style with the odd bit of humour. But is this really what your customers want? Work out how you feel about language by mulling over these considerations.

The basics: informal versus formal language

How formal do you want your tone to be? This will vary over different platforms and contexts so it’s good to identify, firstly, an average level and, secondly, the extent to which you want to ‘dial’ up and down the degree of formality.

Formal language can convey a sense of professionalism as well as the qualities of being authoritative and respectful. On the flipside, it runs the risk of being stiff and lacking in personality.

We wish to inform you of a new offer currently available.

In contrast, informal language can more easily be filled with personality and warmth, yet may be accused of being reckless and lacking professionalism.

Watch out! We’re chucking a new offer in your direction.

We all have the tendency to express something clearly in spoken language, but when at a keyboard feel the need to complicate and ‘dress it up’. Writing in a way that reflects how you speak doesn’t necessarily mean your language must be very casual; you can still apply the same manners and considerations, just without all the more formal terminology.

Lucie Bright innocent

A tone of voice guide wouldn’t be complete without at least a nod to drinks brand, innocent. I asked writer Lucie Bright a few questions:

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  • Q. What do you think makes innocent’s tone of voice so well-loved?

    We write the way we speak, and we speak to everyone the same way we speak to our friends. (But without the swearing.) We always try to keep things clear and simple wherever we can, and people have always seemed to like that.

  • Q. Are there things you do to help your tone of voice be consistent?

    We only employ people who understand innocent, and then we let them write whatever they want. There aren't really any rules. (Apart from no swearing.)

  • Q. Lots of people in my office have read your A Book About innocent. What is it about innocent’s story that is so compelling, do you think?

    The innocent story is a real story, about real friends, told truthfully. You couldn't make half the stuff up, to be honest. We've had a lot of fun along the way, and we've not been afraid to talk about that side of it, the human side, the mistakes and the friendships and the parties and the stolen moose's heads. It's all been part of the adventure.

  • Q. How important is storytelling?

    Everyone who works here knows the innocent story inside out. But to be honest we don't think that much about storytelling normally – unless we're working on something like a TV ad. We just try to speak and write as clearly as we can, telling the truth about our drinks and the other things we make, and hope that all the parts add up to some kind of coherent whole.

    “We write the way we speak, and we speak to everyone the same way we speak to our friends.”
  • Q. Are there any brands’ tone of voices that you particularly like?

    There's loads of good, interesting stuff around, more than ever before. We're fans of consistency, across words and design, so we like brands like Selfridges, Rapha, Peppersmith and Hiut Denim, who all have a reliably consistent and good-looking output.

Technical language

Of course, there will be times when technical terms are needed because they are very specific in their meaning. Yet, wherever possible, consider using everyday language that your audience will understand. Call to mind the journalistic principle KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Studies have shown that customers tend to favour more naturalistic language in marketing copy. The use of obscure or unknown terms may alienate a customer who, as a result, will find the text overly difficult to read.

Using simple language can also inspire more of a sense of trust and intimacy with your audience. Having said that, take the dictum too far and you might end up patronising your audience with babyish language. So what’s the answer? I propose that technical terms can be left unchanged if they are familiar and understood by the vast majority of your audience. In other words, don’t change something for the sake of it, change it to ease otherwise difficult communication.

Colloquialisms and slang

The use of colloquial language is a sure-fire way of injecting personality. But beware of dating your copy – an expression that is popular and relevant now may not be so in six months’ time. The same goes for pop culture references. It is probably a good idea to avoid these in static copy.

Whether highly colloquial, dialectic or slang language is appropriate, in part, depends on the diversity of your audience. If your customers are all of a similar age or geographic location, it may work very nicely.

Swearing

It’s rare to find a company that swears as part of its everyday marketing copy. So when ones does, it’s pretty attention-grabbing. Scottish beer seller BrewDog was featured in many publications for its dealings with the ASA after being accused of using offensive language.

A less extreme option, minor swear words – such as ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ – can still have impact. At Distilled’s SearchLove London conference, Amelia Showalter spoke about her findings from working as Director of Digital Analytics for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Having performed an extensive series of A/B email tests, Amelia found that – among other results – mild curse words returned good results. This may have been because this type of language lent the emails an evocative, honest feel.

Of course, the suitability of swear words will depend on the nature of the brand itself. In all cases, however, copious amounts of swearing will diminish its shock-factor and effectiveness. Moreover, the writers may be accused of an inability to express themselves well or of being recklessly offensive. Approach with caution!

Your customers’ language

The answers to some of the above questions may lie in how your customers already talk about your products or services.

Pronouns

Choice

The choice of pronouns can make a marked difference to marketing copy, setting up the nature of the relationship between the company and its customer. For example, there is currently a trend with companies that have traditionally been seen as overly self-interested to frequently use ‘you’ or ‘your’ as a way of suggesting their prime concern with customer needs.

  • HSBC, ‘Your local bank’ (as well as your statement, your first personal loan, etc.)
  • British Gas, ‘Looking after your world’
  • Nationwide, ‘On your side’

Order

The ordering of pronouns in a sentence can also carry weight. Compare these sentences:

  • You may want this, which is why we do that.
  • We do this, in case you want that.

The first suggests that the company reacts to the customer. While seemingly more proactive in its approach, the company featured in the second sentence nonetheless positions its own agency ahead of that of its customer.

Presence of customer

  • With this product, you won’t need to…
  • With this product, there’s no need to…

There may be times when the second, pronoun-less sentence is more appropriate. For example, when the writer wants to create a sense of distance, such as when referring to something unpleasant or awkward in nature.

Grammar

With such an emphasis on great content these days, companies may be keen to tighten up their use of grammar. But before pledging allegiance to every grammatical rule going, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which you use language for a given effect. There are some grammatical rules you may not wish to follow because you see them to be out-of-date or unhelpful to your way of speaking.

Some examples of contentious grammar rules:

Whom versus who

Particularly when used in speech, whom can sound a bit stiff. For the amount of effort it can take to work out whether to use who or whom, the word does little to help understanding. However, there may be times when it lends a certain gravity to a sentence.

Rebel without a clause

You could say ‘This is a cake that I baked’. But ‘This is a cake I baked’ works too. Perhaps we should all get less hung up on restrictive clauses.

Conjunctions

It’s drilled into many of us from a young age not to start sentences with conjunctions such as and, but and however. According to English teachers across the land, these should appear in the middle of a sentence, not shamefully flaunted at its beginning. But (mm hmm) they can make for punchy sentence openings and helpfully break up long, flagging sentences.

Double negative can mean double fun

When Pink Floyd sang, ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ the double negative became a cry for rebellion against the rigidity of the schooling system. A knowing use of this faux pas can make for an impactful statement.

Context and convention

Guide to Twitter Lingo

Grammar is less about correctness per se, and more about context. Each medium will have its own conventions. A formal letter to a prospective employer will be written using different language than a text message for a friend.

Twitter has spawned its own new and creative ways of writing.

With only 140 characters to play with, writers use all manner of contractions, abbreviations and condensed wording.

“Twitter has spawned its own new and creative ways of writing.”

Brandisfaction

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The world of brands and advertising has hailed a new age of brevity in language. Words and meaning must be squashed into punchy sayings, slogans and copy on the side of teeny tiny packaging. Single-word sentences have made an appearance, while grammatical rules have been put through the wringer.

Examples:

  • Impossible is nothing - Adidas
  • Be More Dog - O2
  • Think Different - Apple
  • Eat Fresh - Subway

Conclusion

Ultimately, it’s about writing in the way that best communicates your message. Don’t be too eager to follow rules regardless – decide on which work for you and which don’t, then be consistent in your usage.

Chapter 3

Funny business: the role of humour

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Humorous sites such as Buzzfeed and Cracked are currently dominating the internet. In turn, it seems likely that other brands will follow suit in their use of comedy.

But is humour suitable for your brand? Let’s consider how other companies approach this, in two examples of humour done well:

Mailchimp

Humour is a big part of MailChimp’s tone of voice. It’s what sets the brand apart from other email providers and turns otherwise run-of-the-mill copy into something distinctively ‘MailChimp-like’. ‘Fun’, ‘lively’ and ‘young’ are all words that can be associated with MailChimp’s copy, which regularly appears alongside colourful cartoon images.

Things we can learn from MailChimp

  1. Tap into a feeling

    In its company tone of voice guide, MailChimp explains the importance of words shaping how users feel (rather than simply what they think or know). Embracing colloquial, everyday language helps people to forge an emotional connection with the text. Exclamatory remarks such as ‘woohoo’, ‘whoa’ and ‘wowzers’ convey the feeling of excitement, for example.

    MailChimp’s guide lists the kinds of feelings it wishes to evoke in its users.

    Writers embrace the silly side of things for error messages.

  2. Be humble

    MailChimp tends to laugh at itself, not the customer. This self-deprecating quality not only helps to endear the readers, but to suggest a down-to-earth character for its brand. For example, its standard email structure isn’t labelled as ‘classic’ (as it might be by other companies), but as ‘Regular Ol’ Campaign’.

  3. Consider a mascot

    Freddie helps celebrate a successfully scheduled email – tomoswyn

    Having a company mascot can provide a kind of springboard for humour. MailChimp’s Freddie is a mischievous chimp who wants to shake-up boring emails with a fresh and fun approach. Freddie gives writers the confidence to say things that they may otherwise feel are too bold. The cartoon chimp also pops up at various places on the website, generating ideas for copy through performing different actions.

  4. Commit to the humour

    While the humour is dialled up or down at times, MailChimp invariably applies its sense of wit across all of its copy. Even the option to disable humour (a function designed for people who would prefer not to see this style of writing) is cheekily termed ‘party-pooper mode’. Likewise, humour is used when describing difficult or negative things such as a company’s customer unsubscribing from its email list: ‘Bummer. These things happen for a number of reasons...’

  5. Be gentle

    Subtle humour can often work wonders. Although MailChimp does sometimes tell outright jokes (that are funny for the sake of being funny), much of its humour appears in a more subtle form. The jokes aren’t crowbarred into the sentences as obscure or whacky add-ons, but arise naturally from within the sentence itself. In turn, the humour helps build meaning, rather than obscure or confuse it.

    “If you’re not a frequent sender, you can purchase credits that work like stamps for email. Buy them when you need them, and don’t worry about squeezing value out of a monthly plan that doesn’t fit your needs.” Mailchimp Pricing Guide
    “There are a lot of common mistakes people make when creating HTML emails. From sending without permission to confusing transactional emails with email marketing, from purchasing email lists to writing like a used-car salesman…” Mailchimp Email Marketing Field Guide

Ted Baker

More so than many other clothing brands, Ted Baker has a distinctive tone of voice, as typified through its quirky use of tongue-in-cheek humour.

Things we can learn from Ted Baker

  1. Take an open-minded approach to mascots
    “Ted acts as a kind of alter ego for brand creator Ray Kelvin.”

    Whereas many brands choose furry animals or other cute, cartoon-like forms as mascots, Ted Baker takes a different tact. Its mascot is Ted Baker himself – an elusive figure who never actually personally speaks but is referred to at various times and places. In this way, Ted acts as a kind of alter ego for brand creator Ray Kelvin, providing a more compelling version of himself around which writers can centre their humorous copy.

    Rather than bragging about the brand’s talents outright, the figure of Ted Baker allows writers to cast these in a tongue-in-cheek manner: ‘You know Ted, always reworking a classic to make something amazing.’

  2. Be different
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    Ted Baker’s style of humour isn’t childish or cutesy. It draws on Ted Baker’s persona as an elegant gentleman, playing on the notion of British high society and its associated idioms. For instance, on announcing a new store in Turkey, the brand’s blog headline read ‘Ted, meet Turkey’. Its copy is also enlivened with excited greeting such as ‘How lovely to see you! Sign in’ on its website homepage.

  3. Look for humour in unusual places

    Quirkiness is an important aspect of Ted Baker’s tone of voice. This, in part, comes from the drawing on an eclectic mix of subject matter. Named ‘Fashion, Fables and Fish’, the fashion retailer’s blog lists fishing among its categories. Even within this fishing section, a range of angles are taken to the subject matter – how to prepare ‘a little fishy dishy’, a history of fishing, the philosophy of fishing…

  4. Don’t be afraid to be bold

    Ted Baker revels in its own humorous approach to things, daring to be different with such ideas as its Christmas window display of 2010.

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Chapter 4

Storytelling

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Once you have an idea of what you are saying, and the vocabulary and tone of how you want to say it, you might want to think about bigger structural devices such as storytelling.

Why tell stories?

Storytelling is a way of presenting information about your company in a way that resonates on an emotional level with your audience. It’s also a way of turning an otherwise chaotic bundle of information into something more coherent, where the story arc gives direction as the reader is led from one idea to the next.

What makes a good story?

“If told well, a story will embody a company’s beliefs and personality but in a way that is, first and foremost, entertaining and memorable for the audience.”

If told well, a story will embody a company’s beliefs and personality but in a way that is, first and foremost, entertaining and memorable for the audience. This is achieved by boiling down the story’s elements to their simplest parts until they exist as universal concepts that pretty much anyone can relate to.

A good story must:
  • Be about a specific person or a small group of people rather than a whole company.
  • Draw out a basic human emotion such as frustration, hope or excitement.
  • Feature struggle, and require the character to change or learn something.
  • Embrace details (these set one story apart from another).

A story must feature a series of challenges or obstacles that lie in the path of the protagonist and whatever he or she is trying to achieve.

Where can you tell stories?

The most obvious place seems to be a video advert for your company. But stories can be told in lots of other places too: the ‘About Us’ section of a website, written customer reviews, a slidedeck on a new product or service, a presentation, etc. There will, of course, be times when storytelling isn’t appropriate – such as when you need to get across a lot of information quickly – but you might be surprised by how often the device can work.

How do you find stories?

Here are a few places that companies may look to find the stories they wish to tell.

Historical roots

The company’s history provides a good starting point. While this will already have a narrative of sorts, the fractured and unbounded nature of reality means that work must be done to identify a clear and simple story arc. The ending must have a double function: first, to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion; second, to suggest the legacy of the story, vis à vis the company’s future.

Scottish Widows is a company with a long and interesting history that can potentially be composed into a great story arc. Let’s compare the current copy on the company’s website with a more story-friendly version.

  • Beginning (Set the world, introduce the main character and his or her goal)

    Scottish Widows was established in 1812 during a meeting at an Edinburgh coffee house. But why?

    Current version: The company was started to provide a general fund for widows, sisters and other females.

    Storytelling version: The company was set up because (insert name here) was concerned that women weren’t being looked after. (He/she) was determined to ensure widows, sisters and other women had the things they needed to live a happy life.

  • Middle (The challenges)

    Current version: the company won a range of financial services awards.

    Storytelling version: the company struggled to get recognition for its work, losing out on some financial services awards but winning others.

  • End (Bring story to conclusion, suggests what the future holds)

    Current version: Scottish Widows is one of the most recognised brands in the market.

    Storytelling version: Scottish Widows has transformed the lives of both women and men, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

The everyday story

Stories don’t have to involve accounts of life and death. They can be found in the details of everyday living – those tiny wins or losses that can transform your mood, your day or even your life.

Ben and Jerry’s has made an art of bringing its everyday business to life through telling stories. It pays homage to the flavours that were never turned into ice cream with its ‘flavour graveyard’ – a visitable place with makeshift tombs and plaques. A flavour that never got the sign-off from the managers is turned into its own story.

This may not represent storytelling in conventional terms but, nonetheless, each tomb speaks for a goal (of a new flavour) and an end result (the death of the flavour). The writing on the plaque provides extra detail, with one describing the discontinued Fresh Georgia Peach with the following words:

‘Fresh-picked peaches, trucked from Georgia, tasted great but couldn’t last, ‘cuz Georgia’s quite-a-ways away, & trucks don’t go that fast.’

Stories about doing things differently

Scottish beer company BrewDog identifies its story as one of rebellion. Tired of the beers that dominated the market, BrewDog set about creating something different – a great craft beer made in an eco-brewery. In doing this, it claimed a certain kind of punk culture, describing itself as having an ‘anti-business business model’.

Obstacles have inevitably been met along the way, including troubles with the ASA for the use of ‘offensive’ language. To this, BrewDog’s co-founder James Watt replied ‘Those mother fu*kers don’t have jurisdiction over us’. Such trouble is exactly what a punk-identified brand covets, this all bolstering its story as one of doing things differently.

BrewDog projected a 30-foot naked image of themselves on the Houses of Parliament, October 2012.

Chapter 5

Implementation

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It’s one thing to decide on a tone of voice, quite another to get others to embrace it in their writing. So how do you go about doing this?

Involve people in the early stages

“…the tone of voice should be an expression of the people who make up the company.”

Rather than deciding on a tone of voice, then expecting the rest of the company to use it unquestioningly, involve people in the early stages of planning. People are more likely to be receptive of something they have had involvement with.This may be particularly true with senior members of staff who will have much invested in how the company is represented.

Involvement could consist of focus groups where people actively participate in exercises (such as those listed in previous sections) as a way of generating ideas. It may also be useful to ask people to pinpoint specific examples of copy already existing in company communications that they particularly like or don’t like, and explain why.

For a less hands-on approach, keep people up-to-date with the development of the tone of voice, and ask for comments and feedback. Of course, this process is not just about encouraging ‘buy-in’ but also about getting an indication of whether you have developed a suitable tone of voice. If a lot of negative feedback comes back, you may have to re-think things. After all, the tone of voice should be an expression of the people who make up the company and so must ring true for them.

Create a tone of voice guide

This should be sent to a few key stakeholders to initially read and digest in the early period of adopting the voice, then referred back to at later dates. In addition, a guide will serve as a critical tool for training new content team members.

Creating a document not only reassures people that the tone of voice is a specific, knowable entity (rather than something fluffy they will never fully grasp), but gives people confidence to write in this new way by setting out rules and guidelines.

Tips for writing a guide:

  1. Write in the tone of voice itself

    Show how to put theory into practice by adopting the tone of voice throughout the guide.

  2. Make it memorable

    In an ideal world, people would call to mind the essential guidelines every time they wrote something until these became second nature. In our less-than-ideal world, it can be difficult to even get someone to sit down and read something once. Therefore, it’s essential that the guide is both easy-to-digest and memorable. You may want to include a one-page summary of the guide’s most important points right at the beginning. These would focus on the personality behind the tone of voice, rather than the specifics of grammar (which can be more easily edited at a later stage of the editorial process).

    This page can be made memorable by including a short phrase that encapsulates the essence of the tone of voice. For example, O2’s phrase ‘Be More Dog’ neatly expressly the idea of excitement and energy. Alternatively, list key qualities as an acronym so that they can easily be recalled. Moz, for example, uses ‘Tagfee’ to characterise its writing as being: transparent, authentic, generous, fun, empathetic and exceptional.

  3. Be comprehensive

    After getting across the essentials, delve into the specifics. While every company is different, there are a few things that are worth considering:

    • Examples of copy used in different contexts (see below for more information on this).
    • Lists of words and phrases that you like versus those you don’t like.
    • Specific grammar rules and examples of these in action.
    • An index and clear headings.
    • Screen grabs of how copy might look on the page (in terms of length, headings, images, etc).
  4. Account for different contexts

    Acknowledge that tone must shift slightly across different contexts and mediums. Give examples of copy at either ends of the scale, e.g. a formal letter of apology, versus a Twitter message. It can be helpful to think of ‘voice’ as an expression of your company values and personality, whereas ‘tone’ to be a more variable quality that depends on the situation.

Introduce governance

There needs to be someone who is responsible for ensuring that the tone of voice is implemented across all relevant areas. Without this, it is very easy for guidelines to be forgotten or lost among the cracks of everyday work life.

This person will need to put in place some kind of governance, most likely in the form of a well-oiled editorial process. All copy might have to be sent to an editing team before publishing, for example. Or perhaps writers will need to complete a checklist after each piece of copy, asking them to confirm certain standards have been met. Either way, there needs to be a logical process whereby unsuitable copy is identified at an early stage and then fixed.

Conclusion

Without developing its own distinct tone of voice, a company runs the risk of its writing being lost among the vast sea of copy out there. A tone of voice expresses a unique personality, turning a faceless company into a group of people with their own special way of working or, in other words, a brand. It is only through embracing a tone of voice that consistency can be achieved – breeding familiarity and trust with an audience.

In order to develop a tone of voice, you must first decide what you want to say to the world. Only then can you work out how to do this, considering your use of vocabulary, as well as devices such as humour and storytelling. Don’t be afraid to get down to the bare bones of language and grammar here – a choice of pronoun, colloquial phrase or swear word can radically shift the tone of your writing.

The most important thing, however, is that a tone of voice rings true for the people who will use it. In turn, your guide shouldn’t completely reinvent language but should identify and refine a way of using words already existing in the company. Doing this can be a tricky task but is made a lot easier by getting others involved.

Good luck!