The ultimate guide to tone of voice

The ultimate guide to tone of voice

6 minute read

The ultimate guide to tone of voice

6 minute read

The ultimate guide to tone of voice

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

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 organisation?  

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 in content teams
  • Creating consistent, useful and on-brand guidelines
  • Making sure these actually get used

So, 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 touch points. It’s about taking the personality of your organisation 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 so 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 organisation. 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 you attention and credibility.

Consumer loyalty and trust 

Tone of voice is one of the most powerful ways of expressing brand identity and earning customer loyalty and trust. Most of the time, if we like a person it has a lot to do with their tone of voice. How they speak to us, make us feel and generally treat us. Organisations 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 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 helps them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

Common problems implementing a consistent tone of voice  

Although a clear tone of voice is an important part of any to a good content strategy, many organisations find themselves with an whole range of inconsistencies across content. This is particularly common in large organisations 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 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 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. 

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? 

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 which 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 tone of voice, so make sure you aren’t losing substance to style! 

3. What do we value? 

What does your organisation value? These need to align with your audience because 64 percent 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 yourselves because 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. 

The seven steps to 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 have 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 tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for 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.  

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 through using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organisation. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.  

4. Think about different guides for different contexts 

Your 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 differentiations 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. 

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 but using 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 organisation'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  

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 organisation?  

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 in content teams
  • Creating consistent, useful and on-brand guidelines
  • Making sure these actually get used

So, 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 touch points. It’s about taking the personality of your organisation 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 so 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 organisation. 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 you attention and credibility.

Consumer loyalty and trust 

Tone of voice is one of the most powerful ways of expressing brand identity and earning customer loyalty and trust. Most of the time, if we like a person it has a lot to do with their tone of voice. How they speak to us, make us feel and generally treat us. Organisations 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 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 helps them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

Common problems implementing a consistent tone of voice  

Although a clear tone of voice is an important part of any to a good content strategy, many organisations find themselves with an whole range of inconsistencies across content. This is particularly common in large organisations 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 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 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. 

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? 

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 which 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 tone of voice, so make sure you aren’t losing substance to style! 

3. What do we value? 

What does your organisation value? These need to align with your audience because 64 percent 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 yourselves because 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. 

The seven steps to 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 have 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 tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for 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.  

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 through using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organisation. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.  

4. Think about different guides for different contexts 

Your 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 differentiations 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. 

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 but using 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 organisation'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  

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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