Types of tone of voice: The ultimate guide

Types of tone of voice: The ultimate guide

6 minute read

Types of tone of voice: The ultimate guide

6 minute read

Types of tone of voice: The ultimate guide

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

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Tone of voice should be a key part of your content style guide—or it can be a separate document in its own right. But how do you create a consistent tone of voice and implement it across your organization?  

Whether you’re just starting out, doing a rebrand, or wanting to spruce up an existing style guide, read this guide for tips on:

  • Understanding tone of voice
  • Defining it for content teams
  • Creating consistent, useful, and on-brand guidelines
  • Make sure these actually get used

What is tone of voice?

From web copy to tweets to brochures to videos, tone of voice for a brand is everywhere and applies to all channels and touchpoints.

It’s about taking the personality of your organization and expressing it through the way you say things. The visual design of your website or offline content can also contribute to the overall personality of your brand.  

Why tone of voice is important

You may have heard of Albert Mehrabian and his theory on successful communication being made up of three parts:  

  • The words you use (7%)
  • Your tone of voice (38%)
  • Your body language (55%)  

Although we can’t communicate body language through content, tone of voice does still make up a significant proportion. Your tone of voice may shift slightly depending on the media outlet, format, or customer segmentation you’re targeting, and that’s okay, but you should still create content with a consistent tone of voice and language across your organization. This is important because it helps your brand with:  

Differentiation

Your brand voice really is what sets you apart from the rest, particularly today online where you have around 15 seconds to make an impression on your audience in a crowded space. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that gains your attention and credibility.

Consumer loyalty and trust


Most of the time, if we like a person it has a lot to do with their tone of voice, including how they speak to us, make us feel, and generally treat us.

Organizations need to bake a trustworthy tone of voice into every bit of content they create. Even embarrassing things like 404 errors on your website are a great opportunity to build trust if you get them right.  

Selling, persuasion, and guidance

When you’re writing to sell or persuade, tone of voice becomes important. In your content, you often need to ‘sell without selling’ which is where a good tone of voice comes in really handy.

Another type of content where you need a grasp on the tone of voice is microcopy — the small bits of copy you see on things like call-to-actions and error messages that drive the user to act, or help them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

Types of tone of voice

There are many different types of tone of voice, and often a company will use a combination of different tones to create their own unique brand voice. Here are some examples of tone of voice:

  • Formal tone
  • Informal tone
  • Humorous tone
  • Serious tone
  • Optimistic tone
  • Motivating tone
  • Respectful tone
  • Assertive tone
  • Conversational tone

The type of tone that you use will depend on a number of factors like the level of formality and sometimes even the subject matter.

Common problems implementing a consistent tone of voice  

Although a clear tone of voice is an important part of any good content strategy, many organizations find themselves with a whole range of inconsistencies across content.

This is particularly common in large organizations where you have lots of people creating content across different departments, and lots of people having a say in what gets published, often with conflicting priorities. Does any of the following resonate?

  • Multiple email threads discussing the tone of voice of a piece of content
  • Far more edits and revisions than necessary
  • Key reviewers delete the copy that was already approved by someone else
  • Last-minute edits to tone of voice (or worse, after it’s been published)

When you have inconsistencies with the tone, it builds an inconsistent picture of your brand which can lead to mistrust from audiences. This is often a symptom of internal processes going wrong, but with a bit of brainstorming and communication, you can get on the right track. In the next part of this guide, we’ll help you find and define a consistent tone of voice.

Who should create the tone of voice for your brand

There is no one role that’s responsible for establishing the tone of voice for your brand. The person or team you choose to develop your writing tone will depend on your organization and goals. It can be a specialist, like a brand strategist, content strategist, or writer. This person can be in-house or someone you outsource this job to like an agency.

The person to develop the writing style and tone words for your brand should be someone who understands your brand culture and values. They should also have experience conducting audience research and analyzing data to understand how to turn that into insights around brand persona.

In addition to that, they need to have the writing skills and experience to express your brand’s personality in a unique way. This will be through syntax (sentence structure), diction (word choice), and other general writing techniques. This person or people should have solid creative writing skills to help them develop the right tone to make the reader feel a certain way with each piece of writing.

Defining tone of voice

Here are six questions to ask yourselves in your content teams to define your tone of voice. It’s also a good idea to bring in design and UX teams at this stage. Use post-its, flip charts, anything visual, or create something in a live document where you can collaborate and make suggestions.

1. What personality traits does our brand have?

It's often handy to think about brand tone and voice as a person. Perhaps give your brand an alter-ego or think about your brand as a celebrity. Are they loyal, caring, and kind? Are they edgy? Fun? Professional? What do they wear? Where do they go? Do they use slang? Abbreviations?

brand personality wheel
Choose a brand personality based on your brand’s characteristics and values. (Source)

2. Where does it sit on these scales?

Nielsen Norman Group designed a tool using results from their study that content strategists can use to create simple tone profiles. They identified four key tone of voice dimensions that work on a scale:  

  • Funny vs. serious  
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

The Nielsen Norman Group also found in a further study that the majority of users rated trustworthiness as the most desirable in a brand and that although friendliness and irreverence were perceived as positive, they could sometimes undermine users’ perceptions of trustworthiness and professionalism. So when thinking about the tone of voice, so make sure you aren’t losing substance to style!

3. What do we value?

What does your organization value? These need to align with your audience because 64% of consumers cite shared values are the main reason they trust a brand, according to a survey by HBR. Make sure your tone of voice reflects your brand values. Your audience cares because you care.  

4. What is our brand not? What don’t we want?

This is an important question to ask yourself because the tone of voice is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. What brands do you hate? Why? Also, think about ways your brand could be easily perceived wrongly. e.g. if you’re a university you have to strike a balance between formal and informal.  

5. What’s a voice of a competitor that’s great?

This is also an important step to take. Pick out phrases competitors have used that resonate with your brand and deconstruct them. What elements make up their whole tone of voice? Why do these phrases work? Then come up with a way you can be different.

6. What’s our brand mantra?

This isn’t chanting in a circle, but coming up with an internal brand mantra is a useful exercise that can get everyone on the same pages easily. A brand mantra is a short phrase (five words maximum) that states your positioning. This should run through your guidelines like a stick of rock and you should be able to test for it. Does this piece of content resonate with this statement?  

Having gone through these questions you should have a good sense of what your brand’s tone of voice is, and what it isn’t. In the next section, we’ll run through how to turn your new ideas into brand voice guidelines to bake a consistent tone of voice into your content creation process.

Creating tone of voice guidelines

The tone of voice part of a style guide is often hardest to get right and sometimes warrants a separate document in its own right (like Leeds University has done). Here are 7 steps to creating brand voice guidelines:  

1. Review existing content  

This is a great time to review your existing content to seek out any positive and negative examples of copy and see what needs to be rewritten. An audit is a scary step but it’s an important one if you want to get the tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for the tone of voice examples, too.

2. Use examples wherever you can

If you’ve found some good examples unique to your brand in your existing content then use them in your style guide! This is what Greenpeace recently did with their style guide revamp and it worked really well.  

Greenpeace content style guide
Greenpeace’s content style guide contains everything a writer would need to know about creating content for the company.

It’s also important to make sure you are crystal clear on what is expected of writers and content creators. Give context and examples of what phrases actually means. For example, you might say something like:

‘Don’t be over-the-top' which could mean:

  • Use exclamation marks sparingly
  • Use simple language  
  • Don’t use lots of words when fewer will do

What about ‘be human?’ This could mean:

  • Be approachable
  • Don’t be overly technical
  • Don’t be too 'salesy'

3. Create a brand dictionary  

Often, brands build up a credible tone of voice by using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organization. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.  

4. Think about different guides for different contexts

The author’s tone of voice is likely to change across channels and formats, so you might want to think about creating different guidelines for each. You might have one for social media posts (and even differentiation between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), one for press releases, and one for blog posts for example.

5. Think about formatting and design

Don’t just make it a plain Word document. Meet with designers to make it appealing to people. Is the font easy to read and large enough to be accessible? Is it visual? Break up long bits of text with images.

Here’s a great example from Uber:

Uber brand voice
Uber’s brand voice document uses design and formatting to present the information in a visually appealing way.

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your tone of voice guidelines aren’t going to be read. Then when it’s finished, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive like your intranet or use a content creation tool like GatherContent.

6. Make sure it gets read

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your tone of voice guidelines aren’t going to be read. Then when it’s finished, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive like your intranet or use a content creation tool like GatherContent.

7. Update it regularly

Remember to update it regularly – set roles and responsibilities and set deadlines. Don’t think of it as a static document; content is a living thing, especially your tone of voice document, as it will change with your brand changes. It shouldn’t be a ‘set it and forget it’ task.

When you have your style guide it must be disseminated effectively to content creators and kept up to date. This is a project in itself but worth investing in so all the hard work creating the style guide isn't wasted. And you can have confidence in the quality and consistency of your organization's content.

Embedding a style guide in GatherContent  

GatherContent is a Content Operations Platform that lets you create, edit, assign and keep track of content all in one place. It works well as an alternative to Word and other pre-CMS tools. It's particularly useful for tone of voice and style guides as you can:

  • Embed your content style guide in your editing environment so authors can easily follow voice and tone content rules
  • Create different style guides for different formats
  • Provide templates for different types of content  
gathercontent content style guide
You can embed your content style guide right in GatherContent so that writers don’t have to leave the platform to see the requirements.
Good to Know: Find out more about using GatherContent for content style guides or give it a whirl with our free demo.  


Tone of voice should be a key part of your content style guide—or it can be a separate document in its own right. But how do you create a consistent tone of voice and implement it across your organization?  

Whether you’re just starting out, doing a rebrand, or wanting to spruce up an existing style guide, read this guide for tips on:

  • Understanding tone of voice
  • Defining it for content teams
  • Creating consistent, useful, and on-brand guidelines
  • Make sure these actually get used

What is tone of voice?

From web copy to tweets to brochures to videos, tone of voice for a brand is everywhere and applies to all channels and touchpoints.

It’s about taking the personality of your organization and expressing it through the way you say things. The visual design of your website or offline content can also contribute to the overall personality of your brand.  

Why tone of voice is important

You may have heard of Albert Mehrabian and his theory on successful communication being made up of three parts:  

  • The words you use (7%)
  • Your tone of voice (38%)
  • Your body language (55%)  

Although we can’t communicate body language through content, tone of voice does still make up a significant proportion. Your tone of voice may shift slightly depending on the media outlet, format, or customer segmentation you’re targeting, and that’s okay, but you should still create content with a consistent tone of voice and language across your organization. This is important because it helps your brand with:  

Differentiation

Your brand voice really is what sets you apart from the rest, particularly today online where you have around 15 seconds to make an impression on your audience in a crowded space. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that gains your attention and credibility.

Consumer loyalty and trust


Most of the time, if we like a person it has a lot to do with their tone of voice, including how they speak to us, make us feel, and generally treat us.

Organizations need to bake a trustworthy tone of voice into every bit of content they create. Even embarrassing things like 404 errors on your website are a great opportunity to build trust if you get them right.  

Selling, persuasion, and guidance

When you’re writing to sell or persuade, tone of voice becomes important. In your content, you often need to ‘sell without selling’ which is where a good tone of voice comes in really handy.

Another type of content where you need a grasp on the tone of voice is microcopy — the small bits of copy you see on things like call-to-actions and error messages that drive the user to act, or help them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

Types of tone of voice

There are many different types of tone of voice, and often a company will use a combination of different tones to create their own unique brand voice. Here are some examples of tone of voice:

  • Formal tone
  • Informal tone
  • Humorous tone
  • Serious tone
  • Optimistic tone
  • Motivating tone
  • Respectful tone
  • Assertive tone
  • Conversational tone

The type of tone that you use will depend on a number of factors like the level of formality and sometimes even the subject matter.

Common problems implementing a consistent tone of voice  

Although a clear tone of voice is an important part of any good content strategy, many organizations find themselves with a whole range of inconsistencies across content.

This is particularly common in large organizations where you have lots of people creating content across different departments, and lots of people having a say in what gets published, often with conflicting priorities. Does any of the following resonate?

  • Multiple email threads discussing the tone of voice of a piece of content
  • Far more edits and revisions than necessary
  • Key reviewers delete the copy that was already approved by someone else
  • Last-minute edits to tone of voice (or worse, after it’s been published)

When you have inconsistencies with the tone, it builds an inconsistent picture of your brand which can lead to mistrust from audiences. This is often a symptom of internal processes going wrong, but with a bit of brainstorming and communication, you can get on the right track. In the next part of this guide, we’ll help you find and define a consistent tone of voice.

Who should create the tone of voice for your brand

There is no one role that’s responsible for establishing the tone of voice for your brand. The person or team you choose to develop your writing tone will depend on your organization and goals. It can be a specialist, like a brand strategist, content strategist, or writer. This person can be in-house or someone you outsource this job to like an agency.

The person to develop the writing style and tone words for your brand should be someone who understands your brand culture and values. They should also have experience conducting audience research and analyzing data to understand how to turn that into insights around brand persona.

In addition to that, they need to have the writing skills and experience to express your brand’s personality in a unique way. This will be through syntax (sentence structure), diction (word choice), and other general writing techniques. This person or people should have solid creative writing skills to help them develop the right tone to make the reader feel a certain way with each piece of writing.

Defining tone of voice

Here are six questions to ask yourselves in your content teams to define your tone of voice. It’s also a good idea to bring in design and UX teams at this stage. Use post-its, flip charts, anything visual, or create something in a live document where you can collaborate and make suggestions.

1. What personality traits does our brand have?

It's often handy to think about brand tone and voice as a person. Perhaps give your brand an alter-ego or think about your brand as a celebrity. Are they loyal, caring, and kind? Are they edgy? Fun? Professional? What do they wear? Where do they go? Do they use slang? Abbreviations?

brand personality wheel
Choose a brand personality based on your brand’s characteristics and values. (Source)

2. Where does it sit on these scales?

Nielsen Norman Group designed a tool using results from their study that content strategists can use to create simple tone profiles. They identified four key tone of voice dimensions that work on a scale:  

  • Funny vs. serious  
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

The Nielsen Norman Group also found in a further study that the majority of users rated trustworthiness as the most desirable in a brand and that although friendliness and irreverence were perceived as positive, they could sometimes undermine users’ perceptions of trustworthiness and professionalism. So when thinking about the tone of voice, so make sure you aren’t losing substance to style!

3. What do we value?

What does your organization value? These need to align with your audience because 64% of consumers cite shared values are the main reason they trust a brand, according to a survey by HBR. Make sure your tone of voice reflects your brand values. Your audience cares because you care.  

4. What is our brand not? What don’t we want?

This is an important question to ask yourself because the tone of voice is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. What brands do you hate? Why? Also, think about ways your brand could be easily perceived wrongly. e.g. if you’re a university you have to strike a balance between formal and informal.  

5. What’s a voice of a competitor that’s great?

This is also an important step to take. Pick out phrases competitors have used that resonate with your brand and deconstruct them. What elements make up their whole tone of voice? Why do these phrases work? Then come up with a way you can be different.

6. What’s our brand mantra?

This isn’t chanting in a circle, but coming up with an internal brand mantra is a useful exercise that can get everyone on the same pages easily. A brand mantra is a short phrase (five words maximum) that states your positioning. This should run through your guidelines like a stick of rock and you should be able to test for it. Does this piece of content resonate with this statement?  

Having gone through these questions you should have a good sense of what your brand’s tone of voice is, and what it isn’t. In the next section, we’ll run through how to turn your new ideas into brand voice guidelines to bake a consistent tone of voice into your content creation process.

Creating tone of voice guidelines

The tone of voice part of a style guide is often hardest to get right and sometimes warrants a separate document in its own right (like Leeds University has done). Here are 7 steps to creating brand voice guidelines:  

1. Review existing content  

This is a great time to review your existing content to seek out any positive and negative examples of copy and see what needs to be rewritten. An audit is a scary step but it’s an important one if you want to get the tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for the tone of voice examples, too.

2. Use examples wherever you can

If you’ve found some good examples unique to your brand in your existing content then use them in your style guide! This is what Greenpeace recently did with their style guide revamp and it worked really well.  

Greenpeace content style guide
Greenpeace’s content style guide contains everything a writer would need to know about creating content for the company.

It’s also important to make sure you are crystal clear on what is expected of writers and content creators. Give context and examples of what phrases actually means. For example, you might say something like:

‘Don’t be over-the-top' which could mean:

  • Use exclamation marks sparingly
  • Use simple language  
  • Don’t use lots of words when fewer will do

What about ‘be human?’ This could mean:

  • Be approachable
  • Don’t be overly technical
  • Don’t be too 'salesy'

3. Create a brand dictionary  

Often, brands build up a credible tone of voice by using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organization. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.  

4. Think about different guides for different contexts

The author’s tone of voice is likely to change across channels and formats, so you might want to think about creating different guidelines for each. You might have one for social media posts (and even differentiation between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), one for press releases, and one for blog posts for example.

5. Think about formatting and design

Don’t just make it a plain Word document. Meet with designers to make it appealing to people. Is the font easy to read and large enough to be accessible? Is it visual? Break up long bits of text with images.

Here’s a great example from Uber:

Uber brand voice
Uber’s brand voice document uses design and formatting to present the information in a visually appealing way.

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your tone of voice guidelines aren’t going to be read. Then when it’s finished, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive like your intranet or use a content creation tool like GatherContent.

6. Make sure it gets read

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your tone of voice guidelines aren’t going to be read. Then when it’s finished, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive like your intranet or use a content creation tool like GatherContent.

7. Update it regularly

Remember to update it regularly – set roles and responsibilities and set deadlines. Don’t think of it as a static document; content is a living thing, especially your tone of voice document, as it will change with your brand changes. It shouldn’t be a ‘set it and forget it’ task.

When you have your style guide it must be disseminated effectively to content creators and kept up to date. This is a project in itself but worth investing in so all the hard work creating the style guide isn't wasted. And you can have confidence in the quality and consistency of your organization's content.

Embedding a style guide in GatherContent  

GatherContent is a Content Operations Platform that lets you create, edit, assign and keep track of content all in one place. It works well as an alternative to Word and other pre-CMS tools. It's particularly useful for tone of voice and style guides as you can:

  • Embed your content style guide in your editing environment so authors can easily follow voice and tone content rules
  • Create different style guides for different formats
  • Provide templates for different types of content  
gathercontent content style guide
You can embed your content style guide right in GatherContent so that writers don’t have to leave the platform to see the requirements.
Good to Know: Find out more about using GatherContent for content style guides or give it a whirl with our free demo.  


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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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