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How To Develop Tone of Voice (and What Sir Alec Guinness Can Teach Us About It)
August 9, 2022
Tone of voice (TOV) is a core element to any sort of content or copy for almost all organisations. It sets out the structure for how you want your brand or product to be seen and yet, whilst most will have TOV guidelines, there are relatively few memorable TOVs themselves.
So, What is Tone of Voice?
TOV is the way you address customers, in how you sell your product and how you present your organisation to the world. Is your product or service a luxury? Does it need to emphasize that it is for those with a sense of great style and taste? Is it for formal occasions or leisure? Is it something that will improve lives or is it for entertainment? Do you want to be taken seriously or do you want to have fun with your customer base? It is not just the words you write that say this, but how you write them.
Think of brands that use their marketing to stand out from the crowd: Innocent smoothies, Pret and Puccino’s coffee shops, Oatly oat milk etc. These organisations all have undeniably unique and bold TOVs, and it’s this that sets them apart in crowded marketplaces. But how does one adapt TOV, not just for different organisations but for different audiences as well? Well, it ‘aint easy.
Every single one of the aforementioned companies above did not set out to have the TOVs they do now. They grew out of trusting their copywriter and allowing their vision to grow from there. Naturally, this may seem a little daunting, but if you have a professional in place you have nothing to worry about. A skilled writer should have the creativity and nous to understand what you want/need and build upon your vision with their words. Although often undervalued, this is what their skill base pertains to and you should trust them, like you would any other professional, to do so.
What Can Sir Alec Guinness Teach Us About TOV
Sir Alec was one of England’s most gifted actors. Classically trained he brought life to Dickens characters, Shakespeare, war heroes and, most famously, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy from 1977-1983.
Now, if you’ve not watched Star Wars -firstly, why?- but, secondly, the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi was basically a wizened space wizard. Now, Guinness thought the dialogue of these films were a bit hammy so what he did was set out to create a very distinctive tone of voice for his character. Bringing a certain sing-song mystery to his character, Guinness spoke in a unique pattern and style.
Fast forward to 1999 and a young Scotsman called Ewan McGregor is cast as a younger version of the Kenobi character. In his development of the character, he not only has to speak in an English accent, but also learn the Guinness intonations and tics put into the character. And yet, fans now see McGregor’s depiction as iconic within itself. So, what does this teach us about TOV?
Well, it shows us that if you develop a good TOV, it can have a lasting impact. It also shows us that, even if you didn’t develop that particular TOV, you can work within its parameters and make it your own!
How Do You Decide What TOV is Best for You?
Now, this is a tricker question to answer and involves a lot of variables, not accounting for personal taste. Before you can even begin to consider how you present yourself to the world, you need to ask yourself three major questions.
1. What are my organisation’s values?
You need to understand exactly what it is you do and why you do it. Does your organisation have a philanthropic side, a deeply embedded philosophy, or a unique way of working? If so, you’re going to want to communicate this in a register that you feel suits that best. There’s no point in being fun and quirky if you have a very solemn message to get across as the two will, inevitably, clash.
2. Who cares?
This may sound a little depressing, but your copywriters should be asking themselves this every day. Not in a dark, angsty, existential manner but in a way which addresses your customer base. It also opens itself up to many more questions that will help you identify exactly who you need to be speaking to. Who cares about your company/product? Why do they care? What are their values?
3. Who are my audience
This may seem obvious, but you need to understanding who you are appealing to. Who is typically going to buy from you and is interested in what you offer? You need to understand, not just what they want from you, but what they want from the world as a whole, how they communicate with their friends, and how they express their likes and distastes. This may become tricky if you are selling to a customer base that does not naturally fall into your own identity or way of thinking, and so a professional writer can become invaluable in such situations.
What’s Your Marketing Approach?
A content strategy and TOV aren’t just separate entities but also feed into, and off of, your wider marketing strategy. A good place to start is the ‘They Ask, You Answer’ route, where you attempt to answer any and all questions your customer base may have or want addressed. This will feed your TOV and help you understand what is wanted from you, the seller.
“But do I answer those tricky questions too?”, I hear you ask. Nobody wants to hear how expensive a product is going to be, surely? Well, in short – yes. As long as you can give logical reasoning behind your approach, i.e. “We’re more expensive because our product is better for X,Y and Z reasons”, then customers will respect your honesty and see you as a knowledgeable expert in your field too for helping them find those answers rapidly. This is especially valuable in the world of Search Marketing where customers want questions and queries answered quickly and efficiently, providing all the information they need. None of us like Googling anything for more than five minutes so if you can give instant and in-depth answers, you’re already onto a winner.
The Power of Power Words
Power words are to marketing what power chords are to Bon Jovi! They’re cheesy, cliched and yet people love them. Studies have shown that words that drive an emotional response are more likely to lead to a sale.
For example, two of the most effective words in retail marketing are "fresh" and “new" but these can help set the tone and give you a starting point for your content. Let’s say you’re a coffee company selling tasty morning brews, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ are going to trigger emotional responses from customers who will be intrigued to try your latest blend of beans.
However, this is where your previous consideration for who your customer base is, comes into play. If you’re selling to a more upmarket customer who wants only the best things in life, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ just may not cut it. Words that are similar but have an air of class about them though, could have more of an impact, so think more along the lines of ‘auspicious’ and ‘unique’. These words can push towards a sale so justifications such as ‘because’, ‘instantly’, ‘imagine’ and ‘now’ can all be considered power words when employed properly.
Ultimately, Is it Compelling?
If the writing is good, it can cover for a multitude of sins. If short on information, good copy can distract the reader from this. Luxury car marketing is especially good at this - At the end of the day, there’s not a great deal of difference between the core components of any car, the internal combustion engine has stayed largely the same since 1876.
However, read any high-end car copy and you’ll find words like ‘sleek’, ‘chic’, ‘curves’ etc. People need to be compelled to part with such a large amount of money so the copy often sounds like they are selling an exotic animal or once in a lifetime experience.
A well-versed writer knows there are no boring topics, just boring ways of explaining them, and so, if you need to turn something a little drier into something you want to hear about, you need someone who can drive that narrative with passion.
The content team at Honcho spans a wide array of backgrounds from across journalism, storytelling, and creative endeavours, and can help with tone of voice guidance, thought leadership pieces, social media posts, meta descriptions, and more with a strategically led output bespoke to your business needs.
Part of the wider Organic Performance team, we work together with other departments including SEO and Digital PR to make sure your content is user friendly and targets exactly who you are looking for, with data-led insights.