23 October 2019

The lost art of great tone of voice

We've been thinking about tone of voice - the things we get wrong, and how to get it right.

Check out our in-house Copywriter Becca‘s advice on how to get your brand’s tone just right…

Let’s take a trip down memory lane; back to a time when we made appointments with our bank managers, took lengthy, boozy client lunches and met our future partners in real life. A time when financial institutions needed a crash course in communicating like real people.

But as the great Bob Dylan once said, the times, they are a changin’.

Lunches are from Pret, no one meets in real life and you can message someone about your Monzo account straight from your app, exclusively in emojis, if that’s your thing. On the plus side, good communications have become an integral part of business, with tone of voice now a must, not just a nice-to-have. Today, ‘human’, ‘straightforward’, ‘friendly’ and ‘clear’ are no longer fit for purpose as tone of voice guidelines – they’re fundamental to good copy.

So, how do you make sure your tone of voice guidelines pack a punch? Have a think about the following…


Are you being yourself? Or are you jumping on the latest bandwagon?

Not long ago, in an agency not too far away, everyone was trying to be Innocent. And who could blame them? Their copy was as fresh and fruity as their smoothies and everyone wanted a squeeze of the success.

But no one else was Innocent, a three-man band with a great idea born from a particularly crippling hangover. While the founders had no professional writing experience – they were just making it up as they went along – copycats brought in the big guns to try and recreate the magic. But it didn’t work. They didn’t have what Innocent have. They were just a knock-off, and it showed.

Your tone of voice should reflect your business, values and the things you care about. Don’t jump on the bandwagon and do whatever other people are doing. Stay true to your brand and make sure that what you say and what you do match up.


Will your tone of voice stand the test of time? Or will it be as popular as shoulder pads a week from now?

I once came across some tone of voice guidelines that required headlines to be 5 words or less. Sure, this had worked brilliantly when the company had just rebranded and had a snappy new campaign to go with it.

But jump forward a year when it was time for a new campaign and this tone of voice didn’t suit. Either the guidelines needed to change, or the campaign would suffer.

Think about longevity. Campaigns can be innovative and creative one-offs, but your tone of voice guidelines need to be lasting and flexible to work across a range of comms. Be mindful about which trends you buy into, especially shoulder pads…     


Are your guidelines functional?

It’s all very well having a set of guidelines that sound exciting, but you need to ensure that they make sense too.

Take ‘human’, for example. It crops up regularly in tone of voice guidelines, but what does it actually mean in practice? How does it sound?

Is it telling real stories? Is it being totally honest? Are you the first ones to say: ‘Okay, so we really messed up, but here’s how we’re going to fix it’?

Or does it mean writing exactly as you would talk? And making typos when it’s for the greater good? After all, if Maurice Drake had just thought ‘oh no, better spell it properly’, we’d have never ended up with ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’


Do they make sense? Could absolutely anyone read and understand them?

You’ve heard of too many cooks, but when it comes to setting your tone of voice rules, the more cooks, the better. Once you’ve got a first draft, show it to everyone. Show it to Sue in accounts, John from compliance, grab the person who comes once a week to empty the paper shredder.

Can anyone pick them up, give them a read and just get it?

Could you confidently refer someone to page 12 when they want to check that their writing is on brand?

If the answer’s no, get back to the drawing board and create a set of guidelines that everyone will understand.


Will it land with your audience, or just give them “the ick”?

Last year, I bought a dress for my work Christmas party. T’was the week before payday and I needed something cheap and cheerful, so ordered from a website that wouldn’t be misplaced during a Love Island ad break. Nearly a year later, I’m still receiving daily emails addressing me as ‘hun’ and ‘babe’.

When it comes to tone of voice, it’s important to remember that whoever your audiences may be, whether you’re speaking to an internal or external audience, the language you use should be universal to everyone; don’t isolate people or be too overfamiliar.

Think about your audience and there’s no end to how much they’ll love you for it. Even when you’re telling them off, like in the case of this cease and desist letter from Netflix.


If you’re looking for some help with your tone of voice guidelines and want to make sure your brand comms sound like you, get in touch with Becca, she’d love to chat.

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