Applying a distinctive and consistent tone of voice to your online communications has many benefits - so long as you make sure that voice doesn't get in the way of web-writing essentials such as usability, accessibility and seo. Sticky Content's Dan Fielder, who developed our new advanced web writing training course, looks at how to work a tone of voice online.

What is tone of voice?

If your organisation or brand could talk, it would talk in your tone of voice. It might say different things or speak in a different style to different audiences, but underlying all those communications there is - or there should be - a single personality with a distinctive way of saying things.

As the web matures as a publishing medium, online tone of voice is becoming a sophisticated marketing tool in its own right, providing the benefits of:

  • Making your online communications more usable - A clear, informative tone of voice helps people navigate your website and get the most from other online communications
  • Creating an emotional bond with your brand - A good tone of voice can make interacting with your company a really enjoyable experience, making people more likely to recommend you
  • Standing out from the crowd - Having a distinctive way of talking will help users and customers remember you
  • Delivering exceptional service - Making your content informative and helpful can cut call centre traffic, help people get more from your products and enhance your reputation for customer service
  • Selling more - Focusing on voice can help you use language to engage people about your products and services

What tone of voice isn't (and shouldn't be)

At this point we should clear up a few misconceptions we often hear about tone of voice:

  • Tone of voice isn't the same as brand values - But a voice is often expressed in values, and it is of course used to communicate your brand
  • Tone of voice doesn't mean a different voice for every audience - You have one voice, though you may highlight different elements of that voice or use a different language register depending on which of your audiences you're talking to
  • Tone of voice is not the same as messaging - Though, again, these things are closely related as what you choose to talk about says as much about your brand as the voice you express it in

Feeling the difference a voice makes

Tone of voice is easier to feel than define. Take a chicken recipe from Delia Smith, and another from Jamie Oliver and ask what sort of person wrote this? Jamie's language is yoof-fully bish-bash-bosh, dynamic and all-inclusive; Delia is cordial and informative, but holds the reader at arm's length, a prim schoolmarm with a mission to educate about Good Food. Different personalities - different tones of voice.

Now choose a sports story. Read how it's covered by The Sun, The Guardian, the BBC online, a fanzine. Each will present a different emphasis, a different selection of facts; each will use slightly different vocabulary, syntax, even punctuation. All these tiny editorial decisions contribute to a distinctive tone of voice.

Now think of a market you know well and look at the sites of competitors. Ask yourself: how do they sound? For example, are they:

  • Warm and chatty?
  • Cool and detached?
  • Laconic or breathless?
  • Professional or wacky?

If each site was a person, which would you rather spend time with? Which do you trust more? These are all questions about brand, of course, but more specifically these are questions about the language of brands. And where there is language, there is tone.

Developing tonal guidelines

With the web writing basics in place, you can start looking at tone of voice properly. The standard way to do this is to take your brand values and translate them into a list of adjectives or "tonal values". Unfortunately, many of these can be very similar - so many brands seem to consider themselves to be warm, human, professional etc. - who'd want to sound cold, inhuman, unprofessional...!? Additionally, no one really knows what these adjectives mean as they're highly subjective.

A strong tone has to be applied consistently; otherwise it will never be distinctive or engaging. You need to be able to roll out your tone to everyone involved in working on your content. You can't rely on a single person who is the unofficial "guardian of the voice". Which is where guidelines come in.

Proper tone of voice guidelines set out formally what your organisation's personality sounds like, so that all your written communications sound like they come from the same place. Tonal values, written examples and practical copywriting tips can all be used to help your organisation define its voice - and reproduce it time and again, even when your words are the work of many different authors.

So look for ways to define your tone more descriptively, with guidelines that:

  • Say how you speak but also how you don't ("e.g. authoritative but not bossy")
  • Provide examples of your tone translated into real sentences
  • Give examples of how to get it wrong
  • Show how your voice differs from your competitors ("it's on tone if x wouldn't say it")
  • Say what you want a user to come away thinking or feeling

Then think about all those little editorial decisions that affect your tone too. Do you write in British or American English? Does your content need to be written for ease of translation? Do you write "don't" or "do not"? Can you use slang? How much technical or specialised knowledge do your target readers have? Do you do humour? If so, what kind? Puns? Jokes? Black humour? It all helps to build a more complete, more readily replicable, voice.

Varying your tone of voice

You may have different areas of the site aimed at distinctively different audiences. You can respond to this by emphasising different elements of your overall tone of voice within each area. For instance, you might emphasise the tonal value "empathetic" in your customer service section, while you might lead on "inspiring" in your thought leadership section.

It's all right too, to use language of more complexity in one area of the site than in another, so long as it's pitched right for the intended audience. Jargon isn't jargon, after all, if your audience understands what you're talking about. This doesn't mean however that you're switching voice. After all, you talk differently to a 3-year-old than you do to your boss, but the words are all still coming from the same place, in the one voice.

This is where you should use your guidelines as they'll flesh out examples of your voice in different channels, for different audiences, emphasising different values.

Conclusion

Brands that do voice really well provide a consistent and engaging verbal presence in every area of their digital presence, not just in the obvious places like product pages and marketing emails. This could include transactional emails, online forms, error messages and the like - important touch points where your brand can easily be forgotten. And they're recognisably the same brand, whether they're talking to their international business audience or teenage customers.

Dan Fielder is co-founder and head of content at digital copywriting agency Sticky Content Ltd. Since 1997 Dan has been leading high-quality content projects for global brands, financial institutions, government agencies and successful internet businesses, as well as developing and delivering training in digital copywriting skills. Read Sticky Content's blog.

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