Schwa’s tone of voice bible

As part of our Tone Test, we ask people what they want to know about tone of voice. We get a lot of questions. So we thought we’d answer every last one, once and for all. 

There are six sections:

Happy reading.

What is tone of voice?

What is it, in a nutshell?

It’s a way of wielding words that’s unique to your brand.

Some brands that are famous for their tone of voice are First Direct, Innocent, Mailchimp and Oatly. Maybe Brewdog too. They’ve all got a way of writing that brings across their brand personality.

For example, let’s say a brand wants to be perceived as modern and friendly. It’ll need to come across in how they write. So a tone of voice could take their writing from this:

An email confirming this transaction will be sent to your registered email address.

To this:

A confirmation email should be landing in your inbox within a few minutes.

That’s tone of voice.

Is it worth the money to get a tone of voice?

If you use it in the right ways, then yes, absolutely it is.

There’s plenty of hard data to show that a wisely wielded tone of voice can bring ROI that touches almost every part of your organisation – not least recruitment, marketing, brand engagement, client satisfaction, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction. (There’s generally just a lot of satisfaction.)

To reap these rewards though, you have to put in the work. You have to train your people to use the tone of voice, and do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to embed it throughout your business. Luckily, we can help with that bit too, because it’s essentially a behaviour change programme, and we do behavioural science too.

What’s the difference between a tone of voice and a style guide?

Style typically covers the nuts and bolts of language, like whether you write ‘10’ or ‘ten’, and whether you say 13th July or July 13. It’s all about technical consistency.

Tone of voice is the written expression of your brand’s personality, so it’s more about word choice and order than the nuts and bolts.

How distinct are different brands’ tones of voice really?

If a brand doesn’t have a tone of voice, you can spot it a mile off. They’re usually more formal, cold and corporate than they need to be, and they write too much.

As for the brands that do have a tone of voice, they’ll often have plenty of overlap but with key distinguishing features.

Most brands with a tone of voice will aim to sound clear, succinct and friendly.

But some will do it in a playful way (like Innocent). Some do it in a bold, ambitious way (like Netflix). Some even emphasise a certain regional dialect (like Plusnet). 

Why bother with tone of voice?

Do you really need one?

It depends on what you want to achieve.

You can survive without a tone of voice just like you can survive without a coherent visual identity, or a head of brand, or any marketing at all.

But having one can bring massive benefits, and ROI-wise it can be seriously lucrative if you use it right.

And in competitive markets, a tone of voice can really help you stand out and get an edge on your rivals.

Come on, surely tone of voice is only for trendy consumer brands?

Absolutely not. Some of the businesses that stand to gain most from tone of voice are the B2B ones who need to write super technical stuff.

For them, it’s less about a distinctive style and more about making their writing clear, concise and convenient to read. When they do that, they save their people time, leave them better informed and soon start seeing the difference on their balance sheets.

More on that in this blog by our Hannah.

Can tone of voice actually be distinctive then?

Yep, absolutely. It’s just not quite as simple as with visual identity.

All Monzo had to do to stand out was choose a vibrant coral for their cards (and entirely reinvent what a modern bank is and does, but let’s not split hairs).

There’s no written equivalent of vibrant coral. Well, maybe a sort of unexpected word, like butternut or quokka. But that’s not much use for branding.

Tone of voice isn’t a single word. It’s a feeling. And you’ve got to make people feel that feeling every single time you write.

Tricky, but worth it.

How do you avoid annoying people?

The more distinctive your tone, the more you’ll split people’s affections. Sure, you’ll win some die-hard fans, but there’ll also be those who turn their noses up.

It’s a worthwhile trade-off. The trick isn’t to try and avoid annoying people. The only way to do that is to be vanilla, which isn’t exactly the goal with branding.

And if a more modern style of language is enough to put some people off your business entirely, are they really the kinds of people you want to do business with anyway?

We’ll let Oatly finish our answer on this one. Oatly

How do you create a tone of voice?

What tone will resonate most, both internally and externally?

Clarity is usually a good idea. As is being succinct, and sounding human.

It’s pretty much guaranteed those three things will work well for most brands. Which is, of course, the problem. It’s hard to find a brand that doesn’t tick those boxes nowadays, so if you want to stand out you’ve got to do something else too.

How do you build a tone of voice that lasts?

How long are we talking here? Trends and tastes change, and what might fly today could easily sound old hat a decade later.

That said, if your tone is true to who you are and isn’t only built around words and phrases that are trending right now, you won’t go far wrong.

Refresh it every couple of years to keep it in tip-top condition and you should get some good mileage out of it.

Should your tone of voice suit your brand or your customers?

Both. But start with your brand – presumably they’re your customers because they like you, so they’ll follow.

How do you make sure it fits your brand?

Talk to people. Run input workshops and invite representatives from every part of the business: comms, finance, HR, compliance, risk, even legal. Ask them how the brand feels from the inside.

Next, talk to your customers. Listen to what they say about you on social media – the glowing reviews as well as the damning feedback.

Then take a good look at any materials you already have – your brand personality, corporate values or purpose, for example.

Make sure your tone matches your internal and external culture and you can be pretty sure it’ll be a good fit for your brand in general.

How do you make sure everyone internally agrees on what the tone should be?

Absolutely everyone? That might be a tall order, especially for larger organisations or brands that want something really distinctive.

Usually the only way to get complete consensus is to water things down so you end up with something bland – which is hardly the point of branding.

But broadly speaking, so long as you get a good mix of people involved in the process from the outset and listen to what they have to say – their worries, challenges and hopes – then they shouldn’t rock the boat too much further down the line.

That’s thanks to something called the Ikea effect.

Can you be relaxed and professional at the same time?

Depends what you mean by professional.

If you mean communicating clearly, efficiently and effectively then absolutely. If you mean sounding like a corporate robot from the 1950s, probably not.

It’s something we feel pretty strongly about, the P-word. So much so, we’ve even written a blog about it.

What does a good tone of voice look like?

It should be specific and practical, and reflect your company culture.

We’ve seen our fair share of bad ones over the years: waffly, vague and full of useless charts and matrices explaining how the tone should flex according to different audience segments.

Guidelines alone do not make a tone of voice. They’re useful, but really they’re the weakest weapon in your arsenal.

If you want every single person in your organisation to use the tone of voice, you need a rollout plan that’s savvy to the fact that people don’t want to change.

Where do you start?

With what you already have: your company culture.

Talk to your people. Run input workshops where they can tell you their hopes and fears for the tone. It’s a good idea to speak to your customers, too. Find out what they have to say about your brand – the things they like and the things they’d like to change.

The next stage is to audit your current comms. Read as many documents from as many different business areas as you can: marketing, HR, legal, finance and internal comms. Get a sense of where the tone is now – and whether there are any parts of the business that sound wildly different to the rest.

If sounding distinctive is your goal, we recommend taking a nosy at how your competitors are sounding, too. Look for the language gaps in your market. Your tone of voice should be the one nobody else has.

How do you explain your tone of voice?

What sort of guidance do you need to create?

You’ll need to create some sort of comprehensive guide that walks people through every bit of your tone, and how to do it. A set of before-and-afters is a good idea too, particularly if it includes examples from across the organisation.

A one-pager to send people who just need to get the gist of your tone is handy to have too.

Plus we also recommend having a short, snappy ‘hook’ for the tone of voice – something easy to remember that will give people a feel for the tone even if they don’t have time to read the full guidelines.

How detailed should the guidance be?

Have a detailed guide for people who want detail and a light one for people who don’t.

However detailed your guidelines are, what matters most is that they’re practical. Guidelines that are all concept and theory are no real use to anyone.

How do you make sure everyone gets the same understanding?

In a word: training. Whether you run webinars for hundreds of people at once or prefer to take it one team at a time, it’s the best way to make sure they all get the same understanding.

You could also appoint tone of voice champions from different areas across the business, so people have someone to turn to if they need help getting to grips with things.

Keeping people in the loop with email/Slack/social nudges and updates is another way to get them all on the same page.

Should a tone of voice flex?

How do you flex your tone for different audiences?

You don’t. A tone of voice that flexes is a waste of time and money.

Your content will change depending on who you’re talking to – for example, if your audience craves a deeper level of technical detail – but the tone you use doesn’t need to.

Getting everyone in your organisation to use your tone of voice is hard. If you tell them they can dial it up and down, they’ll take that as permission to ignore it entirely. And if you change tone every time you change audience, you can wave goodbye to brand consistency.

So everyone should use the tone of voice in all situations?

Yes. If they’re writing on behalf of the brand, they should use the tone of voice for everything they write.

The only exception is if they’re writing as themselves – say in an article or a blog post.

Of course, if you’ve got a wacky tone of voice you’ll have to make a decision about whether to use it in, say, comms to customers going through a bereavement. But you don’t have to put that in the guidelines. People aren’t stupid - they’ll know when your tone feels wrong.

How do you adapt it for different regions or languages?

Don’t just translate it word for word. That’s a sure-fire way to end up on a ‘Buzzfeed Top 20 translation fails’ listicle.

Things like formality and humour can be the sticking points. Different regions have different appetites, and funny in Britain isn’t necessarily funny in Bahrain.

So you need to look at the spirit of your tone of voice and recreate it for different regions and languages. Think transcreation rather than translation.

Should social media have its own tone of voice?

It shouldn’t need it. The reason a brand’s social media account sometimes sounds different to the rest of the brand is that the social media team are the only ones using the tone of voice.

Your tone of voice should work for social media, customer comms, online, microcopy, HR policies, internal memos and everything in between.

How do you make your tone of voice stick?

How do you make sure everyone uses your tone of voice?

It’s inevitable that there will be some inconsistency, especially in the early days of changing tone or if you have lots of different writers creating content. But there are a few tried and tested ways to get your voice under control.

We base our tone of voice rollout programmes on the COM-B model of behaviour change: essentially activities and tools that give people the capability, opportunity and motivation to change.

A successful tone of voice programme would include a good spread across the three.

What are some specific ways to get a tone of voice to stick?

Training will be most people’s introduction to your tone. You can keep what they learnt front of mind afterwards with regular email updates and newsletters.

You could also rewrite some high-profile internal communications. These can be anything: policies, job descriptions – even a broken lift sign is an opportunity to get the tone under people’s noses.

Another way is to let your senior leaders do the hard work for you. Authority bias means we’re more inclined to listen to people further up the food chain. So if you can show that your senior leaders are on board by getting them to use the tone in their speeches and memos, you’ll spread the word far and wide, fast.

How do you enthuse people outside brand and marketing?

Make it about more than writing.

Show them how using the tone can save them time, slice steps from processes and cut their email chains.

Show them how it can win over disgruntled customers and get their brand more love from fans on social.

And most important of all? Make it easy to understand and use. (And maybe don’t even call it a tone of voice.)

How do you convince sceptics that you’re not dumbing down?

You could start by showing them the studies that prove it.

There’s the one from Nielsen Norman Group about how even whip-smart science, medical and tech experts prefer simple language.

Or the one from Daniel Oppenheimer at Princeton University, which proves that if you want your reader to think you’re smart, you should go for short words over long fancy ones.

Try talking to them about readability scores. And how using short, simple words can boost your stats and make your message easier to take in.

We often find it helps to make the distinction between technical language and tone super clear, too. If your audience expects and understands technical language, by all means use it. ‘Cyclic tops’ might not mean anything to you or me, but railway engineers know very well it’s a specific sort of bumpy track, so why avoid it if they’re your audience?

On the other hand, there’s no audience in the world who needs to read the word ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’, or ‘commence’ instead of ‘start’. They’re not technical language – they’re just plain unnecessary formality.

Can you really start a sentence with ‘and’?

Yes, you absolutely can. And it isn’t just something you can do – it’s something you should do. Same goes for starting sentences with other conjunctions like ‘but’, ‘so’ and ‘because’.

It’s a neat way of signalling to your reader that two points are separate yet connected. It makes it sound like a person is actually speaking to you (we pay way more attention to writing when it sounds like talking). And, according to Kingsley Amis in The King’s English, “these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally.”

But if you’re still not convinced, here’s our blog on this very subject.

How do you measure the impact of tone of voice?

How do you measure the impact of tone of voice?

Don’t measure opinion. Measure results.

Start by finding something measurable. Your website is a good place to start, because you can fairly easily measure things like clicks, dwell time and bounce rate.

If that’s a no-go area, there’s an almost infinite number of other places to look. Do you have a sales team? They’ll probably already be measured to the nth degree. Do you send out customer comms or internal comms? All fertile breeding grounds for tone of voice tests.

Once you’ve decided, the best test is a split test. Let’s say you’re using a bill. Write one version in the tone of voice and another not in the tone of voice. Send the tone of voice version to half your customers, and the non-tone of voice version to the other half. Wait a month or two. Now see how many in each group paid on time, or whatever other measure interests you.

How valuable is a tone of voice?

Hugely, both in tangible ways and intangible ones.

Starting with the tangibles, we’ve:

As for the intangibles, imagine all the words attached to your brand. All of them. The words on your website, your social, your brochures, your call centre scripts, your live chat, your contracts, your terms and conditions, and so on.

Now imagine real people reading those words, which is probably happening right now. Are you making those people smile or frown?

That’s the power of tone of voice: to transform all your comms, everywhere, into an opportunity to at the very least make life a little easier for people, and sometimes even wow them.

(And no, we didn’t plant this question just so we could show off.)

Our ideas and freebies, straight to your inbox

Got it. You’re on the list.