Voice and Tone: Music to Your Customers' Ears

Posted by Laura Blackwell

December 21, 2015


Behind all great brands are great stories. And behind all great stories is great content. Developing this great content depends on innovative ideas, unique points of view, compelling visual elements, and a distinct and consistent voice and tone—and that’s just naming a few key factors.

Today’s multi-channel, always-on communication environment creates additional complexity, as many people could be contributing to a company’s communications. It can be challenging for companies to sound consistent across channels, audiences, and formats. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you need a voice and tone guide.

The difference between voice and tone

Voice and tone are often mentioned together, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. Simply put, voice is about your brand and tone is about your customers.

Voice is the written personality of the writer or the brand

It’s “who” your audiences hear when they interact with your content. You can usually sum it up with a few adjectives—“reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative,” for instance, or “forward-thinking, friendly, and approachable.” And the don’ts can be just as important as the do’s—“authoritative but not condescending,” for example, or “friendly but not over-familiar.” The important point to remember is that these traits are unique and differentiated from your competitive set.

Tone is the manner in which you communicate

While your brand has one voice, the tone of your voice should change to match the audience and the situation. In everyday conversation, people don’t speak to everyone in the exact same way. Parents use simpler language when speaking to young children, and someone else might take care to enunciate their words when speaking to a relative who’s hard of hearing. Even in the workplace, there’s likely a difference between how you talk to a customer, a partner, and a colleague you’ve known for years.

It’s the same for brands. Prospects and customers may have different ideas about what they want from you and how much time they want to spend reading what you have to say. Think about each persona you need to address: What does each one want to read about? How much detail? How much reassurance? How much confidence versus modesty do they want from your company? You want each reader to feel like you’re talking to them personally, not just saying the same thing to everyone.  

Learning the tricks of tone

While voice is relatively easy to understand, tone is slippery because it always changes.

Where you say something affects how to say it. When you’re with your buddies at a football game, heckling the opposing team’s quarterback is acceptable, maybe even encouraged. But when you’re at the opera with the same friends, you know better than to interrupt the villain’s aria to give her a piece of your mind.

Think about where and how your audience interacts with your content. A white paper should sound professional; a Facebook post, conversational. If your brand is global, your communications should resonate with audiences in every region where your brand maintains a presence. So while your corporate voice should remain constant, it’s important that communications be translated in a way that their tone reflects and honors regional and cultural norms and preferences.

Tone should also reflect the situation. Live-tweeting during an event or conference should perhaps sound spontaneous and off-the-cuff; major announcements on the corporate website will likely be more buttoned-down (depending on your company’s voice). A 404 error message for a webpage might be lightheartedly apologetic, but one reporting a major service outage should be solemn and to-the-point. No matter what the medium, your voice stays the same; it’s the tone that shifts to suit the different communication formats and channels.    

Critical components of a voice and tone guide

Examples are a useful part of a voice and tone guide. MailChimp’s well-known online voice and tone guide gives examples appropriate to various situations and the reader’s probable moods. Just as it’s easier to imitate a comedian than it is to invent a comedy routine, it’s easier for your writers to match a voice than it is to reinvent it from descriptions.

Speaking of comedy, if your voice calls for humor, be specific about the types. Mildly quirky turns of phrase? Puns? Jokes about cat ownership? Different audiences like different things. In general, a light hand is best; it’s easy to overdo it and annoy readers. A little wordplay or a nod to your persona’s interests is enough to build rapport and keep customers reading.

Whether you’re talking about humor protocol, regional best practices, or even the company’s stance on acronyms and symbols, a high-level list of do’s and don’ts is extremely useful for content creators. And if you haven’t already settled on a company style guide, you may also want to decide a few style rules, such as whether to refer to your company with pronouns (“we”) or by company name only.

Turning it all into music

When used correctly, voice and tone can evoke emotion and elicit action from your target audiences. The trick is to think about who you’re talking to, and what you want them to know, and what you want them to do next.

Most companies find that they need a voice and tone guide that spends time with both aspects. A consistent voice helps position your brand. The right tone—for each persona and each situation—helps your readers see that you value them, and that you understand their needs. That’s something to sing about. 

Topics: Content Strategy, content foundation, voice and tone