Your tone of voice: why fade away when you can stand out from the crowd?
With reviews and comments being easier to share than ever before, clients and customers have a great deal of choice these days. So how do you make your brand stand up and stand out? Through your logo? Typeface? Name???
All these elements create a valuable first impression and successful companies typically have a consistent design identity. Yet …very few manage to articulate their brand distinctively and consistently through their tone of voice (probably the most well-known examples being innocent and Pret).
That’s why creating and using the right tone of voice (aka TOV) to create an outstanding – and accurate – first impression of your brand is so important. And not just in ad copy or web copy either: really clever, really sharp brands showcase their tone of voice across all touchpoints. Just look at how this packaging and signage for Brooklyn Fare sing out.
So, what is tone of voice?
A tone of voice is the way in how you speak and write, what you say and how you sound. What you say is defined by your knowledge and experience; how you sound is defined by your personality.
What’s your first impression when you read these statements? If you don’t know me, then any of these could be a true reflection of my personality. But which is more likely to make you pick up the phone?
- Caroline Gibson is an experienced freelance copywriter based in London. She’s worked with a wide variety of clients and won awards.
- Meet Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter. Caroline’s worked with zillions of different clients. She’s even won awards!!!
- Hello, I’m Caroline Gibson. I’m a freelance copywriter and I’ve been fortunate enough to with just about every type of business (and even picked up a few awards along the way).
What’s the difference between tone of voice and copy style?
The tone of voice is how you sound. The copy style is how you bring that sound to life through an engaging narrative, whether in an ad, brochure or on a website.
Why does tone of voice matter?
Like a person, a business has a mixture of characteristics: brand values. These guide the way you behave. And the way you’re viewed by others.
They’re unique to you. They help define and drive your tone of voice.
And the more consistent you are in the tone of voice and language you use, the more likely it is that customers will understand why you’re unique and why they should choose you rather than your competitors.
As an example, I’ve picked a small American brand with just a handful of branches in Austin, Texas: Maudie’s. Just like its ads, Maudie’s packs a big punch. The ads look and sound distinctive, telling me the brand is confident, positive – and fun.
How do you create the right tone of voice?
As William Zinsser says so brilliantly, ‘Writing is thinking on paper.’
First, you need to understand a brand. Inside and out. Yes, you may feel you already do so but … it pays dividends to get an external perspective, such as through hiring a branding copywriter or tone of voice expert.
I send potential clients a link to my copy briefing template which is a mini-interrogation so that I can understand the challenges they face, the people they want to attract and the competitors they want to beat.
I’m a great believer in providing clients with choice. (After all, you’d expect to see a few different logos or web designs to choose from for your bucks, wouldn’t you?) If you believe your brand to be ‘dynamic and innovative’, then great. But my interpretation of ‘dynamic and innovative’ could be quite different. So, I like to show a reasonably safe route (maybe something close to what you have already but neater, crisper, clearer), an option that may push you out of your comfort zone, and one that’s in-between.
What’s the point in saying you’re dynamic if you don’t sound it?
What about tone of voice guidelines?
My heart sometimes plunges when I see this section in a client’s brand guidelines. The challenge with copy style guidelines is that they need to help employees feel confident about writing short pieces of copy, such as emails, but also enlighten external contractors such as freelance copywriters. Which are two quite different audiences.
The best tone of voice guidelines are short and sweet with a few guiding principles and worst vs. best practice examples.
However fancy your shiny new tone may be, good writing matters. Here are two key tips I always include so that your words are as lovely to read as they are to write:
Write like you speak, as if to a friend. And use the active voice, not the passive, as it’s more one-to-one, less formal and just easier on the eye.
Here’s an example:
Passive: Your email will be replied to in due course.
Active: I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Why use ten words when three will do? Don’t [use] a complicated or long word if there’s a shorter or simpler one instead. Get straight to the point.
How brave do you want to be with your tone of voice?
I always encourage clients to be bold. And be different. And to really, really turn up the copy volume dial to stand up and stand out. Just like this for Bellroy (proof that product descriptors needn’t be dull) …
And this for anatomicals (proof that, when a copywriter and art director – who happen to be brothers – launch a toiletries brand, you know that brand is born to be head and shoulders above the rest) …
Need a tone of voice? Then why settle for vanilla when you can go for gold?
About the author: Caroline Gibson