A simple tool to guide tone of voice

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It can be difficult to control how you sound on the internet.

Even when setting out with the best intentions, it’s extremely easy to lapse into cliched communication styles, making your message sound inauthentic.

Memes, slang and colloquialisms often blend together in this expansive sea of information. This can cause people to take on inconsistent or inappropriate verbal attributes without even knowing it.

Guidance

One of my favourite ways to help our clients develop better content is by creating simple voice and tone tables. These are short, helpful tips which suggest how to write online, to be used by anyone who writes for your brand on the web. Importantly; they explain the rationale behind certain ways fo writing, thus educating the client about the nuances of content.

We have to remember that every brand has a unique voice, and that writing skills, and tone of voice are incredibly powerful as a means to help your audiences recognize you. This isn’t just reserved for big multi-national brands: we’ve written these editorial guidelines for small tech companies, government entities, credit unions, colleges, churches, realtors and beyond.

This is the structure I’ve found to be most effective for writing guidelines:

Before we get started…

How many voices should be included?
I usually include 3 to 6 different traits to be embodied. Depending on the size of the project, some voices may be context specific. For example Help and Support content may be more ‘direct’ where research content might be more ‘insightful’.

When in a project workflow should they be produced?
I usually create these guidelines after all the main content strategy deliverables have been created (content inventory, page tables, site map, governance docs, etc.), and I have the best possible grip on the client’s culture, content and personality.

What research do you do beforehand?
If existing brand personality guidelines exist in other documentation, great! Borrow those.
Use what you’ve learned about the brand through your extensive research:

  • Discovery sessions
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Competitive analysis
  • Content audits
  • Analytics reviews

On top of this more formal research you should also collect and read through as many samples of text that have been produced for the company as possible— online and off. Take note of text samples that perfectly suit or totally undermine the voice of the company, until a picture of how they should ideally “sound” starts to emerge.

Fleshing out the table

It’s time to start creating the guidelines. Consider the core aspects of their voice and brand — you’ll have some ideas already from your earlier research. What are some personality attributes that could sum up those aspects? Can you find some examples that illustrate that trait? Can you also find some negative example — or make some up?

Here is one of three pillars we created for a kids’ teaching resources site:

Here is one of five guidelines we created for a college in California:

Just as you aim to produce dynamic speakers and writers, so too should your communication be polished and effective.

Here is another excerpt, this one from a government arm in BC. In this example, there were 6 personality traits in the whole doc: Helpful, Empowering, Light, Professional, Entertaining, Real. Together, these create the acronym HELPER, which is a useful memory tool for content writers. Writers could remember that if they were writing like a “helper,” their voice would be on track.

Here’s what the pillar for the word “Empowering” looked like:

The end result should be a simple one-page guide of five or so concrete examples for how to write, and how not to write.

So… why are we doing this again?

Many writers, one brand
The role of web writing is often decentralized, with responsibilities shared between many different content authors, in many different places. These guidelines can be helpful as a central reference to keep the overall voice consistent.

Consistency is memorable
As you aim to deliver great experiences for your customers, giving them a consistent encounter can help build loyalty. Think of the microtext you loved on the original Flickr, or why you get a kick out of MailChimp. They didn’t just pick default text, they created a voice to fit their brand and culture. And they made this ubiquitous.

Death to corporate blah
A huge amount of us write our “corporate” web content with a kind of numbing pseudo-professionalism. Social updates, newsletters and website notifications being common hosts to this. We often write with such glazed-over blasé that it you can almost see the sadness growing in your readers’ eyes. With this deathly dull nonsense, we make a universe where meaningless phrases abound, simplicity is avoided and jargon reigns. It’s time to stop. It’s rude to write like that. Voice and tone guidelines can help establish professionalism without drifting into corporate blah.

(As a reaction to “corporate blah,” some writers have swung the other way into “casual blah,” where they adopt a tone of chattiness in order to appear more personable, regardless of whether it suits the brand. You should be careful to avoid this.)

Guide and educate

We often end up stumbling into the voice our companies use on the web, accidentally. It doesn’t have to be this way, especially when we’re talking about an asset as powerful as your words. There is an opportunity to influence the reactions and emotions of your customers in a manner that is natural and healthy: why not aim to gain control of your organization’s tone of voice?

 

This is a guest post by Kevan Gilbert. Kevan works as content strategist for Domain7—a web agency on a mission to humanize the web. He’s 5-foot-8 and wouldn’t do well in a fight, but could maybe talk his way out of one. You can find more about Domain7’s clients, team, projects and thoughts at Domain7.com.

  • Peter Hankel

    This was very insightful. Thank you so much for your knowledge.

    • http://twitter.com/kevangilbert Kevan Gilbert

       You’re welcome! Thanks for reading.

  • http://twitter.com/mozbloke Steve Morris

    This is great stuff Kevan – thank you. I’m new to Content Strategy but I’ve recently been using the idea of ‘voice and tone’ into Design Personas (I’m sure you’ve seen the idea from Aaron Walter). Even small business clients have been very receptive to it. ‘Death to Corporate Blah’ indeed!

    • http://twitter.com/kevangilbert Kevan Gilbert

       Thanks Steve! Yes — personas are an amazing tool to get into the mind of the user. I’m glad this approach is working for you!

  • http://www.gosquared.com/ James Gill

    This is such a handy tool – I’m sharing this with the rest of the GoSquared team right now! Thanks Kevan.

    • kevangilbert

      Fantastic, James! That makes my grinchy heart grow three sizes with pride and joy. Hurrah for GoSquared!

  • http://hashimwarren.com/ Hashim Warren

    I like the flexibility and clarity this seems to bring. I’ll try this at my agency.

    Kevan, I would love to connect with you. Please email me – hashim@hashimwarren.com

    • kevangilbert

      Excellent. I’ve sent you a note, Hashim!

  • http://realogic.net/ Miles Baltrusaitis

    I also thought this was a great piece.

    Applying your template can transform a situation of potential personality conflict (“You need to write more like me”) to a justifiable and unifying method that will also improve your end product.

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