As someone who is curious about psychology and nerdy about words, tone of voice (TOV) guidelines should get me excited.
Lovely, structured manuals that distil the essence of a brand, helping the writing folk to do their work well. But here’s why I think they are often problematic:
- They don’t exist. Or maybe they do in someone’s head, but there’s no single source of reference for everyone else.
- They do exist but they need ‘digging out’ of a drive somewhere. In other words, they’re not used.
- They exist but miss out essential stuff. For example, guidelines that only cover social media channels.
- The guidelines have just been created. The exercise was interesting and the work is now considered done.
In this short article, I’ll share some tips for dodging these challenges and help you put your brand voice into action. This will be useful for digital folk in the arts looking to implement or improve your brand voice, whether your guidelines exist or not. First, let’s start with some definitions.
The difference between voice and tone
The words ‘voice’ and ‘tone’ are often used interchangeably. But they’re actually quite different things. Voice is about your brand personality. It’s about your character, your quirks and your unique blend of attributes that leave an impression on your audience. Your personality should feel pretty solid.
Tone, on the other hand, is less ingrained. It’s about shifting your language to meet the emotions and expectations of your audience, respecting the context they’re receiving you in.
So whilst voice is about you as a brand, tone is really about your users. This distinction is really important. Most TOV guidelines tend to focus on the voice part. But applying that voice appropriately is where tone comes in really handy.
You could be a youthful, playful and empowering brand, but you’d need to dial that personality up or down depending on the context. Publishing your venue’s requirements for Covid vaccination passports demands a different tone to sharing news about opening your newly renovated building.
Develop holistic TOV guidelines
There’s often excitement and enthusiasm around developing TOV guidelines. But too often, they end up lost on a drive somewhere, dusted off once in a while when a new starter asks to see them. So how do you make them really usable?
Rachel McConnell, author of Why you need a content team, argues that we should ditch the term TOV altogether in favour of something more holistic like content manuals. The problem with TOV guidance is that it’s often just a few pages on personality stuck at the back of a visual brand book. But to really be effective, TOV should be a resource in its own right covering:
- Voice (or you could call this personality) - the mix of characteristics that define you. This is usually a collection of 3-6 distinctive attributes.
- Tone - the way you intend to shift language to meet different contexts, situations or emotional states.
- House style - a reference for your approach to grammar, spelling, formatting and punctuation. This might include how you format headings or what words you want your writers to use or avoid.
- Writing guide - best practice for web writing (and print if you produce writing for offline use). Read our web writing blog for guidance on this.
The University of Dundee’s content style guide is a really great example of pulling these elements together into a useful resource (with the addition of content principles which I’ll cover in another blog).
Flesh things out with examples
Providing examples wherever possible will make your content manual even more usable. In Nicely Said, Nicole Fenton suggests two really helpful exercises.
The first is what she calls a This But Not That list. Essentially, it’s a list of your personality attributes alongside words that act as parameters to that attribute. Use both words to write example copy. Kind of like a do and don’t list.
Let’s look at the example helpful but not overbearing:
- Helpful sounds like: *This production includes scenes of violence that some people may find triggering. All our staff are trained in mental health first aid and are on hand if you need to take a break or talk. *
- Overbearing sounds like: *PLEASE BE AWARE that this production is set in a prison and there are some scenes of violence between Janet and Ian. We understand that this might be difficult to watch for some people. You may want to take time out. We’ve trained all our staff in mental health first aid because we know how important it is to feel supported. Our staff will be wearing orange T-shirts and standing in the wings during the performance should you need any assistance. *
The second exercise is about tone. Write down the types of content you publish and the purpose of each - everything from blogs down to microcopy messages like cookie policies. For each content type, write down 3-4 emotions that your users might be feeling in the moment. Finally, map an appropriate tone against each content type, taking your users' emotions into account.
- Content type (and purpose) - Event description (to inform and excite users)
- User’s emotions: Curious, optimistic, energetic (tip: you can use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to help with this part)
- Tone: Enthusiastic, positive, memorable
These exercises might seem patronising, but they are really essential for getting everyone on the same page and making your personality more concrete. The second exercise is particularly useful if your personality veers on the provocative or comical side. It will help you make the right choices about when to dial that up or down appropriately.
Consider a live document
TOV guidelines are traditionally delivered in PDF formats. That means they’re stuck in a particular time and place. It’s a faff to update them so they usually just age badly. The reality is that, although your voice is fairly static, other elements of writing should be reviewed and updated regularly. Language is always changing. New contexts demand different words.
Making your TOV a live document will make it easier for you to update regularly. More importantly, it will create a culture of ownership. Your document shouldn’t be a strict rule book. It needs testing, taming and challenging by everyone using it. Tools like Notion or Google Pages are a good place to start, or simply Google Docs. It doesn’t have to look fancy, as long as it’s useful and usable.
Brand voice at every touchpoint
Tech companies like Slack and Monzo are notably good at this (see their privacy and cookie policies). Monzo’s Head of Writing and Customer Experience Harry Ashbridge puts this down to creating a culture that cares about language. Everyone across the whole organisation is considered a professional writer and gets involved in writing workshops. Harry believes that it’s the attitudes of the 99% of the company that don’t write for an external audience that can make or break the quality of writing overall.
But before you rush to rewrite all your microcopy, pause a second and remember to keep tone in mind. Not everything has to be all singing and dancing. Sometimes words are best kept simple and straightforward. Slack’s Sarah Park advises not to overdose on personality - a unique brand voice should be applied with a light touch.
Embed brand voice into every process
Remember that new starter who asked to see your TOV guidelines? Don’t let that happen again. Embed writing workshops into your onboarding processes, even if your staff don’t work in digital. Guide people on writing emails, slide decks, slack messages. Start a brand ambassadors group. Link to your content manual in your blog templates, your CMS guidance, your content lifecycle. Get your CEO on board.
Whatever actions you take, make sure they aren’t just a tick-box exercise. To really create a culture of care for your brand voice, you need to make sure it genuinely permeates from every corner of your organisation.
This blog post was helped along by Lauren Pope, Rachel McConnell and all the brilliant talks at Content by Design.
And if you’d like more information or have any questions, please just get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org