Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady.”
“I really didn’t like his tone.”
“Every time he opens his mouth, he just rubs me up the wrong way”
We might think that getting wound up by someone’s tone is just about the way they say something, but it’s often the choice of words they’re delivering as well. The same thing applies in the written word, which is why you’ll find copywriters and brand people banging on about tone of voice.
Not a waste of time
That’s in case you’re thinking of the 101 other things that come with running a business. But doing a bit of work on your tone of voice will save you time in the long run.
Not convinced? Here’s just a few of the things it could stop you having to do:
- Having to get something written again, and again, because it just doesn’t sound like you wanted it to
- Taking an hour to tell someone about something you want them to write, and then another hour when they haven’t got it right
- Writing something yourself when you’ve got better things to do because no one else makes it sound right
- Customers feeling a bit miffed because they’ve got something from you that sounds a bit off
Okay, the last one might still happen, but make it because they don’t like what you’re saying, not just how you’re saying it.
Want to know what to pull together? Here’s my eight steps.
Step 1: Know where you’re heading
Just so you know that pulling this tone of voice together isn’t like embarking on a Hobbit style quest, or writing War and Peace, you’re aiming to pull together the following things:
- Your business mission
- A sentence or two on why you’re writing a tone of voice document (I’ll help you with this)
- Your tone of voice principles and a short explanation of those
- An overview to tell people what you’re trying to do, what you want customers to do as a result, and the key words you’ll use
- The principles for choosing your words and just a bit about what that means
- What you want people to do feel and do based on anything they read from you
- Key words you would use, and ones you wouldn’t
- What your tone of voice is always like
- What your tone of voice is never like
None of them needs to be very long. The longer a tone of voice document is the less likely it is that anyone will ever read it, let alone understand it and use it. In which case it was a waste of time writing it.
Less than 1000 words, including the headings.
Step 2 Explain why you’re doing this
Depending on the size of your business you might just be writing this for yourself. But as soon as you start having someone else writing for you, whether that’s a team member or a freelance copywriter like me, it’s useful to have a tone of voice document to talk through.
Start with just a short paragraph to remind everyone what your mission is. Couple of sentences is fine.
Then why tell them why you’ve put a tone of voice together. It can be as simple as something like this:
“Our tone of voice sets out the way we speak to our customers, our colleagues and the outside world. It reflects our values and our personality. By always sounding consistent, people can trust any communication from us.”
But put that into your own words and style. You might be more chatty, or more formal. Make every bit sound like you.
Step 3 Write the overview
Some people like to do this at the end, but here’s what you’re aiming for, with an example:
Overview for Customers
We are here to… So customers… Key Words
Share Discover Family, recipe, occasion
Three or four words about what you’re here to do should be enough. They relate to your mission and the way you want people to feel as they explore your brand.
Step 4 Write the principles
You can do this in any way you like. I’ve done them like this:
Calm + Empathetic + Genuine + Warm + Clear
or as a list of actions
- We connect
- We encourage
- We discover
- We celebrate
Either way, just take a couple of sentences to explain what each one means to you, why you’ve chosen it. For example:
“Calm: we’re practical, we get on with things and take a considered approach”
Step 5 What will your words do
People are filling your order books up as fast as you can handle, your follower numbers are off the chart. Fantastic. This probably means your stories are on fire and you’ve inspired people to do things by feeling something about what you do.
That’s the feeling we’re trying to capture from our words. Think of it in terms of what the words will get customers to do or feel. For example, you might want them to:
- Feel hungry
- Feel excited about trying something new
- Feel compelled to explore and try new products
- Share your story (having the bragging rights to a good story)
- Feel love for what you’re doing (or very strong like)
- Feel inspired by your story
- Feel like they’ve got the inside knowledge on something different
Just write a list like that. Whenever you, or anyone else, are writing about your business, keep those outcomes in mind.
Step 6 Words you like, words you don’t
Now put together two lists. Words that sum you up and words that you never want to see in any piece about your business.
This won’t be exhaustive, but will just give a flavour. So if you love the word “dude”, or hate it, then stick it in your list. The words you choose to avoid are just as powerful at bringing your tone of voice to life as those you use.
Step 7 What your tone of voice sounds like
This is about how you want what you say to leave people feeling, and the way you say things. For example, you might want a tone of voice that’s warm and friendly, or one that sounds like Phileas Fogg (check out Mr Fogg’s website for a great example of consistent tone of voice).
Again, nothing complex. Just write a list.
Step 8 What your tone of voice doesn’t sound like
Another simple list. You might want things like not overly formal or never cusses. You might note want to be silly or over flowery. There’s no right or wrong, only what’s right for your business.
Keep the document simple, and send to anyone who ever writes anything for you. When a client hires me as a copywriter, if they have a tone of voice document, then I read it every time before I sit down to write anything for them.
Don’t just leave it in a drawer. Go through it with anyone who joins your team. It doesn’t mean it’s set in stone, and it is worth reviewing. Check it’s still working for you. All these things are there to make life easier, not to constrain you.
Let me know if you put yours together, and if you get a bit stuck or want another view on it, then I’m always happy to have a chat. Drop me an email or find me on Twitter.
For a quick visual reference while you’re writing yours, I’ve done a checklist for things you need to cover. Click the button to download.