Everyone is getting tone of voice wrong – so, how to do it right?
The vast majority of tone of voice documents should be ritually burned. A bit much? Maybe. But almost all of them are absolutely worthless.
A "professional", "human" tone of voice? Rather than a unprofessional, inaccessible rant, you mean?
Too many tone of voice documents advise the writer to make their content:
Really? There’s us thinking you wanted an unprofessional, inaccessible rant written solely for robots and with little confidence or expertise.
The advice is well-meaning, but it ends up being unhelpful and a little bit patronising. Unhelpful in that is gives you no idea of what the copy actually needs to look like and patronising because these things should be assumed shouldn’t they? Why would you hire in a writer that doesn’t know to do all of that as standard? We cover off all stages of writing in our Complete Guide to Blogging for Your Brand and writing professional copy is difficult, but not unachievable with some time and effort into the pre and post stages of your content marketing. So, you don’t need to include it on a list, as you won’t be using any ‘unprofessional’ blogs now, will you.
That isn’t all though. Sometimes there are other words in tone of voice documents that have the potential to bring you out in a cold sweat. These are often vague and inconclusive instructions that are more about the aspirations of the company than any meaningful advice on how it’s written.
Take, for example, ‘funny’. Humour is difficult to pull off and subjective. Who are you trying to make laugh? How much are you willing to push things? Done well, it can work. (Firebox do this particularly well.) But a vague sense of ‘make it funny’ is not a great help. ‘Modern’ is another similarly vague word that is difficult to translate onto the page.
I’m not saying I’m completely against tone of voice documents. In fact, I think they are a good idea in principle and giving writers a feel for how they should sound can be useful. Conveying tone with your writing is, after all, a lot harder than doing so with the spoken word. When you talk you can use volume, intonation and body language to get the same words across in very different ways. Your choice of language – and things like bolding up words and italics for emphasis – have to take the place of this when you’re writing.
So, how do we solve this?
At Zazzle Media, we’ve proposed a six question approach to help brands come up with something useful.
The questions are:
- If your brand were a radio station, which one would you be?
- Which TV station represents your brand?
- If your brand were a television programme, which one would you be?
- If your brand were a newspaper or magazine, which one would it be?
- Is there a famous person that sums up your brand?
- If your brand was a person, where would it choose to meet us?
We don’t feel that you should necessarily sit and answer all of these questions. This isn’t a school test – it’s just an interesting way to tease out some interesting information about you and your brand that helps us to get a feel for how you want to sound.
If you can only answer one, but with plenty of rationale, then that will be very useful for writers.
In many cases, you might feel it’s easier to define what you don’t want to sound like. There’s no problem with that – in fact, that can be pretty useful.
If you’re a food brand that really doesn’t want to sound like MasterChef, a motoring brand that doesn’t want to be like Top Gear or a lender that wants to avoid sounding like the Financial Times, all of those things can be a useful starting point. You might also want to use this to consider two points on a spectrum. Is your food brand ‘more Bake Off than MasterChef’?
It’s also important to get some honesty here. Tone of voice shouldn’t be about boasting and bigging yourself up, it should be useful and grounded in reality.
We’d all love to be the New York Times or GQ Magazine, but is that really right for you and your customers? In most cases, it won’t be. Think about your customers, how they act, what they read and how they behave. If you’ve done persona and audience research properly, you’ll have acquired all of this knowledge any way. Don’t just use it to decide what to sell to people, use it to understand how to talk to them.
Give our questions a go to see if they work. But please, above all else, burn any document that contains ‘professional’ and ‘human’. Or let us do it for you.
Andrew Brookes is content manager at Zazzle Media
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