The Best Tricks for Defining a Brand's Tone of Voice

Have you ever looked at a brand’s tone of voice document only to feel like you actually understand how to write for this brand less? Far too many brands overwhelm us with too many or too vague principles that leave us scratching our head for what a unified voice is supposed to sound like. What’s worse, when it’s hard for you to understand, it also means your creative director and your client might also struggle to ‘get it,’ leaving the voice open to interpretation. The fact is many tone of voice documents may align with the brand’s story, but they don’t always have their own strategy. As copywriters, it’s our job to often figure them out, so let’s all agree to make better tone documents. Here’s a few tips I think can help.
 

Keep It Simple:

Let’s lower the amount of principles. The point of a tone of voice document is not to apply a bunch of buzzwords to your brands copy. It’s to create a single, cohesive voice that makes sense. Because tone can be so difficult to talk about, we sometimes try to apply a lot of buzzwords that encompass all facets of our brand. Avoid that impulse. Instead, keep your tone simple by limiting the amount of principles to 3. It’s not only easier to remember, but it helps keep your principles from overlapping. 

IS/IS NOT ok?

I may have a personal vendetta here, but NO ‘is/is not’ is not OK. Please please please, stop doing this. Not only do most clients see your ‘is’ words as additional principles, but it’s also a crutch for picking bad tone principles. If your copy principle needs an ‘is/is not’ list, then it’s not a good word to use. Instead, find a word that’s meaning isn’t as open to interpretation.

Persona or Persona Non Grata?

Another common TOV document tactic is to include a famous person (or persons) as your ‘persona’. A single persona can be a great way to help figure out a tone of voice, but it shouldn’t be the crux of it. In fact, combining too many people to create your voice is just as confusing as having too many principles. If you do use a persona, make sure their voice is distinct and easy to recognize when written. Avoid people who fit a principle, but don’t have a unique tone. Similarly, if you do use a persona, make sure you use timeless voices - not the latest pop culture A lister. Your tone document might need to help people understand a brand’s voice much longer than that celebrity’s career!

Give Examples That Give Ideas

It’s always important to provide examples of what the unified voice should sound like. I once wrote a tone of voice document for a brand that was defined by its employees. The tone was all about being incredibly conversational. To help inspire writers, I didn’t just give them examples, I gave them open-ended conversation starters that provided a ‘way in’ to start writing. I’ve seen countless examples of tone documents that give you copy that feels too specific or terribly generic that you can’t really apply it. Instead, creatively apply the tone of voice and give your audience thought starters that will help them start writing or get in the right mindset for your brand.

Apply The Tone to the Whole Document

So many brand books take a very cold, generic voice to explain their guidelines, leaving the 6 or 7 slides dedicated to tone to do all the work. If your tone is your brand, use it throughout your brand book! Not only will each page act as an ‘example’ of what your brand’s copy should sound like, it’ll also get the reader into the right mindset. Besides, it’s also a great way to apply creativity throughout the book, turning it into something that’s not ‘just another brand book’ but something that’s fun to flip through.

 

Most importantly, your tone document should feel cohesive. I like to think about my principles as affecting different aspects of the writing rather than acting as buzzwords the brand wants to be associated with. It’s helped me create cohesive voices that inform a brand’s cadence, sentence length, word usage and emotional appeal. Brand books and tone of voice documents should make our lives easier, but the only way it’s going to happen is if we start writing better ones. Do you have any favorite brand books you’ve seen over the years or your own tips? I’d love to hear them. 

Need Some Help Finding Your Voice?

If you’re someone looking to build out their brand’s voice, take my featured Skillshare class that helps you apply the tips and tricks I’ve written about in this article. Check it out here.

 

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