Before you write another word – decide on your tone of voice

Musicians talk about finding “their sound”. Writers often talk about finding “their voice”. Even chefs will refer to a dish as “them on a plate”, despite the fact that is actually quite a disgusting image when you think about.

Finding the “tone of voice” for your brand and then using it consistently across all of your communications and content is essential. Your tone of voice is the personality of your brand and it extends beyond just the written word – it should also be reflected in the design of your site, your use of imagery and any audio and video that you use.

Defining your tone of voice is not as nebulous and woolly a task as it might seem, thankfully – it can be done in just a few simple steps.

Step 1: Gather samples

Assuming that you already have content, gather samples of it. Cast a wide net – include web pages, emails, printed material, anything you can get your hands on.

Throw away anything where the content was provided by a third party – we only want content that is 100% constructed using the “raw DNA” of your brand.

Now, start to whittle down the content to those examples that you feel most represent your brand. For every piece of content ask “is this us?” and trust your gut instinct. A tone of voice is a very hard thing to force, so if it doesn’t feel right then you shouldn’t keep it. Go with what feels right and natural.

Step 1B: The Great (Brand) Escape

It’s possible that, having whittled out everything that doesn’t feel “right” you’re left with little or nothing in your “me” pile. That’s OK – it’s just an indicator that, up to this point, you haven’t been authentic in your communications and content. 

It’s not a problem, you just need to work out a new place to get some content. My recommendation is to replace your empty “me” pile with examples of content from brands that you love, aspire to, and would want to be like. Don’t think in commercial terms – we’re not all going to be Apple or Microsoft. Think in terms of whether, if Apple or Microsoft were at a party, would you want to talk to them – or would they be that guy you keep not-so-subtly moving to avoid being trapped in conversation with?

Step 1C: The sanity check

When you are repeating Step 1 above, it’s worthwhile adding a nuance to your process to take into account that not all change is for the better.

When you have your pile of “keep” content and “throw away” content, and not before, grade each piece of content from 1 – 10 in terms of how effective it was.

If it was a piece of sales material, did it do a great job at generating sales interest? If it was a press release, did it get picked up by multiple outlets?

If you’ve got successful content in your “throw away” pile and duff content in your “keep” pile, you need to have a think about whether the evolution of your brand is for the better or not. 

Don’t do you if you suck.

Step 2: Make an idea board

Find a nice big wall or whiteboard you can work on and pin up your samples.

Take a big step back, take a deep breath, and describe the brand you are looking at in three words. Don’t be afraid to get the whiteboard pens out, join some things together, write some random words up on the board, so on and so forth.

Coming up with new stuff like this is somewhat like testing if spaghetti is cooked – you’re going to throw a lot of stuff at the wall, make a mess, and wait for something to stick.

The technical trick here is “anthropomorphism” – the attribution of human traits to an object (in this case, your brand/business).

Is it serious or fun? Traditional or unconventional? Compassionate or challenging?

Again, the important thing here is to be authentic. You might think you’re the zany, crazy, new-kid-on-the-block but if you’re not… you can’t force it. 

“Be yourself – everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde

Once you have your three-word list, break each word down into three more words to better describe that attribute of your tone of voice.

For example, “Fun” might break down into “Comedic”, “Irreverent” and “Cheeky”.

Don’t agonise over this breakdown, just make sure that you understand what each of your three traits means and that you iron out any ambiguity.

If you aren’t a person, be a thing

If you’re struggling to create a “human personality” for your brand (what are you, some kind of a monster?) then you can always fall back on the marketing stalwart of defining yourself in terms of other products/services.

If you were a car, a TV programme, a brand of yoghurt… take your pick. Personally, I prefer the personal approach but this technique has worked well for a lot of people.

Asking other people as well as asking yourself

Everyone is different and bringing in some trusted colleagues, friends, or advisors can be really helpful.

Marketers have been doing this for years – standing around in high streets with clipboards, asking people to taste two different brands of cola, etc.

Remember that good old fashioned market was good before it got old fashioned. Asking people what they think of a new brand before you launch it is much cheaper than looking at internet traffic and feedback on social media on your brand after you launched it and realising you got it wrong. 

This is a lesson some brands have really learnt the hard way.

The Power of the Secret Ballot

Sometimes, people in your team/business won’t want to tell you what they really think of your brand. 

An anonymous survey or secret vote can help to surface opinions people might otherwise not be comfortable voicing.

Take everything you receive using this method with a pinch of salt however. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that anonymity brings out the worst in many people. 

Step 3: Do as I say by saying as I do

Now that you’ve carefully defined your authentic tone of voice, it’s time to build some rules that will help to ensure that every piece of content you produce matches this tone.

It’s as simple as creating a list of “Do” and “Don’t” rules for content creation.

These are a checklist that we will check every piece of content against before it can be approved. Ideally, everything our brand says and does online and off will follow these guidelines as closely as possible.

Not every piece of content can tick every “do” – it’s pretty hard to write a funny complaints procedure (by which I mean a procedure for handling complaints that is funny, not a procedure for handling funny complaints) – but no content should break a “don’t”.

Here’s an example:

TraitDescriptionDoDon’t
Fun: Comedic, Irreverent, and CheekyWe’re a brand that knows how to have fun and doesn’t take things too seriously.Engage in good natured banter.
Poke fun at ourselves.
Create things “just for fun”.
Share fun content from others.
Lose sight of our core audience.
Stray into controversial or “edgy” content.
Be cruel or sarcastic.
Traditional: Trustworthy, Honest, HistoricWe still believe in old fashioned values.Acknowledge our history.
Share successes and failures.
Tell the truth.
Mislead or trick readers.
Oversell.
Openly criticise competitors.
Compassionate: Caring, Considerate, Socially AwareWe’re a brand that cares about our customers and the things that are important to them.Own our mistakes – and explain how we fix them.
Acknowledge how our actions make our customers feel – especially the good!
Make excuses.
Ignore the impact of problems.

Now, you don’t know anything about the brand I was describing here, but if I told you that I modelled this chart from a small toy maker – let’s call them Geppetto Limited – I’m pretty confident you could write a tweet for them advertising their new puppet.

Here’s one I made earlier:

Pinocchio – He’s finally here, and you’re going to love him. He’s a chip off the old block…

In one tweet we:

  • Tell the customer about the product.
  • Include two emotive elements – the excitement that an anticipated product has arrived and the customer will love it.
  • We’ve acknowledged our history – we’ve been working on this product for a while and… “he’s a chip off the old block”.
  • Yes, that last part was our comedy. If you don’t think that’s funny then I simply can’t help you. 

We’ve ticked a “Do” against every aspect our voice and haven’t broken any “Don’t” rules – this content is good to go!

Step 4: Practice

Now that you have your list and your chart, you’re ready to start updating and creating content so that it matches your tone of voice.

If you’re working with a team, now is a great time to create exemplar content that they can use to further their understanding of the guidelines that you are giving them. We’re not dealing with zeroes and ones here, so even with a detailed list of guidelines there will still be room for ambiguity and misinterpretation.

The clearer you can make things, the better.

“Ideas are easy. It’s the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats” – Sue Grafton

From this point forward, the content guidelines are your laminated, framed, always-on-your-desk point of reference for every piece of content and communication you create. 

At least… until you update them.

Step 5: Review and refine

At least once a quarter, you need to repeat the process outlined above.

Why? Because brands change.

It may be that your brand has evolved for commercial reasons (your business grew and had to become more “serious” to deal with new, bigger, more serious customers) or it may be human reasons (you have a new MD and he doesn’t share your love of wood-based humour), or it could be something else – anything else at all! The point is that organisations, like organisms, don’t stand still – they evolve.

So, every quarter you should repeat the process above to ensure that your guidelines still match your brand.

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