Why most ‘tone of voice’ guidelines are gathering digital dust

Posted by Tom Chesher on 05.09.16

It’s become an essential box to fill in every brief: what’s the brand tone of voice?’ Usually the answer is see attached PDF’. The file pings into my inbox. I hope for the best. Sometimes I’m surprised. Often I’m a bit disappointed.

This is because many of the guidelines I receive (probably a few every month) fall into one of two camps: 1) generic and magnolia to the point of being unusable, or 2) not really tone of voice’ at all, but a mishmash of messaging and style guidelines.

The first group are often produced because brands feel like a tone of voice is something they should have, but nobody’s dug deep enough to find a genuine point of difference. The guidelines are all surface and no substance. All icing, no cake. They feature lots of writing tips, such as be concise’ or be fresh’, but nothing about the actual tone of voice.

The second group have usually been developed by committee, so they contain lots of corporate soundbites but, again, not much that’s really about tone. For example, an FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) brand might ask for a tone that says our product is really tasty’ or a law firm might want to sound like the first choice for dispute resolution’. This is because the brand hasn’t really grasped the difference between what you say (content) and how you say it (tone).

So, enough grumbling, what would I like to see?

If I could wave my magic marker, the next generation of guidelines would: 1) be focused on a company’s genuine personality and supported by some real-world examples and 2) have life far beyond a static PDF.

To develop a tone of voice that’s genuinely different means getting back to the heart of what a brand’s about. It’s not we want to sound like Innocent’ or we want to have an Apple-Virgin-Nike-type-of-a-voice’. Instead, it’s about getting to grips with the real character and personality of a brand – both what it is now, and what it could become in the future.

The trick is then to take this distinctive tone and make sure it is consistently applied. And that means getting everyone on board. All too often, the guidelines are developed, the box ticked, and everyone moves on to the next project. Which is why the tone doesn’t last and bad habits sneak back in.

Instead, you need to keep the tone alive and interesting. How you do this depends on the brand and culture of your organisation. In recent months, we’ve been helping clients develop tone of voice apps and interactive training modules that go beyond the usual face-to-face workshops. These provide an opportunity to train more people, pose regular challenges’ and genuinely measure the effectiveness of your tone of voice activity.

Of course, people can’t get the tone right unless they know what good’ looks like. So we’ve also been helping to develop examples that flex for their audiences and sub-brands.

Hopefully this trend will continue and we’ll see less lifeless PDFs and more dynamic, living and breathing guidelines. If we do this, the days of the me-too’ tone of voice should be numbered – and we’ll see more brands using language that’s original, genuine and (fingers crossed) a bit surprising. 

Written by Tom Chesher, Managing Director at Ink Copywriters in Bath.

Design by Emma Hopton.