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A practical guide to creating brand tone of voice guidelines (that people will actually use)
Author : Stephanie Joy Hubbard
Posted : 24 / 05 / 21
We each have one voice – but many tones. A voice is the unwavering style in which we speak, it’s our personality. But our tone changes depending on the situation we’re in.
For example, our tone will be different when we’re talking to a child than when we’re talking to an adult.
This is as important for organisations and brands to think about as it is for us as individuals. Does your brand have a distinctive voice? What traits does that voice express? And how do you ensure that it’s consistent in everything that you and your colleagues produce?
If you’re ready to answer these questions, you’re ready to create a brand tone of voice guide.
In this article, I’ll explain in a simple and honest way how to create a great brand tone of voice guide and how to make sure people actually use it. I’ll also share some of my all-time favourite examples of brands with a great tone of voice and what we can learn from them.
In this article:
A brand’s tone of voice is an integral part of its brand identity. Brand identity is the way a brand looks, feels and sounds. The sounds bit is the way a brand talks – the voice it uses and the different tones it adopts in different scenarios.
A brand tone of voice guide tells your people how to create the brand’s ‘sound’. And it should be more than just a few words on a PowerPoint slide buried inside your brand guidelines. It should be a constantly evolving resource that everyone who writes in the brand voice has access to and uses regularly.
Your tone of voice guide should give examples of stylistic choices that create the brand voice – that help communicate who you are as a company and how you express your point of view.
It should be a practical, easy-to-understand and easy-to-use set of guidelines. But it doesn’t need to be a long and prescriptive set of rules. Instead, it should explain each of the principles that guide your tone, and give specific examples.
For example, if one of your principles is that you want your customers to feel empowered, you need to explain exactly how that translates into the way you write as a brand. Maybe it means that you adopt a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to writing content. That could mean that rather than simply tell your customers things, you use real-life examples, data and anecdotes – so they are empowered with information and feel that they truly ‘get it’.
People can think there’s a right and wrong way to write. But that’s not true. There are loads of different ways to write. That’s why you need a tone of voice guide to show what your brand’s unique style of communication is.
You need the brand tone of voice itself so you can communicate as one entity, rather than sound like a lot of different people. Communicating in a consistent and easy-to-read way makes for a better customer experience.
And your tone of voice will help to create a sense of your brand’s personality, expressing your values and appealing to your target audience. A consistent voice is also subliminally reassuring. Just like we can get to know a new friend and come to recognise, trust and enjoy the personality that makes them them, the same goes for the brands we relate to.
Good writing is almost invisible, in that it eases a reader through the content they’re reading. If your content isn’t consistently good quality and easy to read, it creates a poor customer experience by breaking the flow. Customers won’t respect your brand if you can’t communicate with them in a consistent voice, style and tone.
To define your tone of voice and create a great tone of voice guide that people find easy to use, there are three steps I always use.
Here’s the process that you can follow.
Before you write a tone of voice guide, you first need to understand what the personality of the brand is.
If you already have a pretty good idea of what your brand personality is, or you already have a broadly defined tone of voice, consider running a session like this anyway. That way, you have fresh insights to work with. It also creates an opportunity to ensure your key stakeholders feel heard, are engaged with the process and will be champions of the finished product.
The point of this exercise is to understand what your tone of voice principles should be, so you can then translate these into clear instructions for writing.
Get your stakeholders together (virtually or physically) with an assortment of words that describe personality. You can buy cards specifically for this purpose, but you can also simply write words on pieces of paper or Post-It notes. A list in a shared Google Doc works well if you’re running the session remotely.
Pro tip: Make the cards double sided, with a word on one side and its opposite on the other.
For example, if you have the word ‘reliable’ on one side, the other side could say ‘rebellious’.
The key to this is to make sure both words have positive connotations. No one wants their brand to be unoriginal, so the opposite of ‘innovative’ would be ‘consistent’. If you conclude that the brand should be both, that’s great. Make sure you make a note of this nuance.
Ask stakeholders to choose which one the brand is most like. This will make for an interesting conversation, as it’s unlikely the brand will ever be 100% one word and not the other. Remember: the point is to generate and record discussion.
Here’s a table containing the kinds of words you should use. Choose a positive opposite to each of these if you want to use the ‘opposites’ method.
Choosing words that relate to sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness is good because these categories relate to five dimensions in a person’s personality. This framework is known as Aaker’s Dimensions of Brand Personality, created by behavioural scientist, professor and author Dr Jennifer Aaker. It’s a well-loved personality framework used in branding.
Sort the words into two piles (or two columns in a Google Doc) – the ones you want to be as a brand and those you don’t want to be. Discuss each word as a group so you get to the heart of why each word is being either accepted or rejected. To get a good discussion going, choose a minimum of 20–40 words.
Another way to do this tone of voice exercise is to have a list of famous brands that are very different from each other in terms of brand identity. It could be brands like:
Apple: sophisticated, non-corporate, creative
Tesla: exciting, innovative, leading
Harley-Davidson: rugged, rebellious, macho
Here are some more examples of famous brands that align with one of these personality dimensions:
If you’re using this method, go through each brand and discuss what you like and don’t like about how each brand positions itself and communicates.
Sort the brands into two categories – those that stakeholders do want to sound like and ones they definitely don’t want to sound like. You should end up with a list of brands your stakeholders like, a list of those they don’t like, and the reasons why.
Whichever method you use, by the end of the exercise, you’ll end up with a list of words. These words make up your brand persona. This is the manifestation of the brand in human characteristics – and the starting point for your brand tone of voice.
Soon after the session (so the discussion is still fresh in your mind), whittle your list down to the three to six words you think best describe the brand persona.
It’s fine if you have different words from the ones you started with: you may have found that new words came out of the discussion. Use the experience of the exercise to inform the final choices, and make sure each word says something different about the brand.
Here are some examples of the kind of words you might end up with:
Once you have a list of personality traits, you need to articulate how to bring them to life in writing.
The guide should be instructional enough that people understand exactly how they can express the brand tone of voice in writing, but brief enough that it’s accessible and easy to use.
Here’s a very simple format you can use to flesh out the instructions:
Personality trait: Why you’ve chosen this particular word as a tone of voice principle
Grammatical/stylistic choice 1, with example
Grammatical/stylistic choice 2, with example
Grammatical/stylistic choice 3, with example
For each of your tone of voice principles, start with the reason you’ve chosen this word or phrase: what does it say about the way you approach your business and speak to your customers? Then, write three examples of grammatical and stylistic choices that express that principle.
For example, say you are writing a tone of voice guide for your finance brand, and one of your tone of voice principles is ‘no-nonsense’. This probably means you want to communicate with your customers in a clear, concise and jargon-free way. So you might write:
Our business exists because we realised that our sector is full of barriers, dead-ends and overcomplicated language that the average person doesn’t understand. And we want to change that.
Here’s how we set ourselves apart from the crowd by being no-nonsense:
Then, your three stylistic examples would follow, like this:
We don’t use jargon, buzzwords or cliches.
Jargon and buzzwords can confuse. They can also quickly become cliches and don’t age well. There are already a lot of unfamiliar words and phrases in our sector, so we avoid jargon, buzzwords and cliches to keep our content clear and simple.
Some common jargon, buzzwords and cliches to avoid:
We keep it concise. This means we use short sentences.
Example (long sentence): To get the right mortgage, you need the right broker who understands you and your circumstances inside and out, and who will work really hard to understand your needs.
Example (short sentences): To get the right mortgage, you need the right broker. We’ll match you with someone who understands your needs.
We weigh every word. This means we cut unnecessary words.
Part of respecting our customers is respecting their time. We want them to find what they need quickly and easily. We don’t want them to have to work hard to find the information they need, or spend unnecessary time reading our content. So we make sure to read back over our writing and cut any unnecessary words without changing the meaning.
This improves readability and saves time for the reader.
Example (no unnecessary words): It’s easy to use unnecessary words in sentences.
Example (unnecessary words): It is very easy to use extra unnecessary words in our sentences.
Here are a few examples of words and phrases that are often used unnecessarily:
Qualifiers: very, completely, absolutely, probably, possibly, somewhat, slightly, generally
Phrases that have an alternative shorter version (shorter version in brackets):
Here’s another example. Say you were writing a tone of voice guide for your luxury make-up brand and one of your tone of voice principles is ‘friendly’. This could mean you want to communicate with your customers in a relaxed, engaging and excited way. So you might write:
We want our customers to feel like they know us – like, really know us! We are their best friend, getting ready together before a night out, sharing make-up tips and gossip.
Here is how we show we’re friendly in our tone of voice:
We show excitement
We like to use CAPITAL LETTERS, bold text and exclamation marks! This shows we are excited to share our news, products and inspiration. It helps to inject some urgency, helps highlight key messages and shows we’re excited to share all our secrets!
Example: Darlings, the NEW! Tinted Love lip and cheek tints are the secret to FRESH, HYDRATING, LONG-LASTING colour that glows with LOVE! It’s FUN, JOYFUL make-up magic on the go!
Instead of: The new Tinted Love lip and cheek tints are out now. The secret to fresh, hydrating, long-lasting colour that glows with love. It’s fun, joyful make-up on the go.
See how that last one just doesn’t have the same kind of excited vibe to it?
We always talk directly to our audience
Part of being friendly is writing as we speak, so we address the audience as ‘you’ (just like a friend would!), and we are ‘us’. Doing this helps the audience feel they are connected to us. This is especially important when it comes to calls to action.
Example: Simply tag us to share your BEA-U-tiful make-up looks with us! We might even post you on our Stories!!
Instead of: To share your Sensational Make-up looks, tag @SensationalMakeup to feature on our Stories.
We add a little flourish here and there
Part of being friendly for us is using a chatty style with the occasional flourish. A flourish can be addressing our audience as ‘Darling’, or adding an emoji. 💖
Adding a flourish here and there makes our writing fun, but make sure you use your best judgement for when a little flourish is appropriate and when it’s not.
For example, social media is a great place to add flourishes.
Example: MAKE-UP MAGIC ✨ Darlings, how wonderful does @camillabradbury look ready for The Brits?! Get the look: click the link in our bio for what we used 👀
But if the circumstance of our writing is more serious (like if someone wants to unsubscribe from our mailing list), we’d tone down these elements of our voice:
Example: We’re so sorry to see you go! If you want to re-subscribe in the future, simply go to our website and click ‘Subscribe to newsletter’.
NOT this: Darling, why are you going so soon? Was it something we said? 😢
You might have spotted that these example tone of voice guidelines are written in the style they describe. This is a great way to demonstrate and reinforce the guidance.
Once you’ve written your tone of voice guide, there are two more things to do: make a plan for iterating it as your brand evolves and think about how you’ll make sure people actually use it.
Brands, like language, evolve over time. So it’s important to have regular audits of your overall brand identity, which includes the way you approach content writing.
Doing a thorough yearly review of all things in your brand identity is a great habit to get into. This would involve looking at your brand guidelines with your team and asking:
However, you might need to review more often than yearly for many reasons – if you have new products, a new proposition or, for example, a global pandemic hits and you have to reconsider all elements of your business. Use calendar alerts to remind you and your team to schedule regular brand catch-ups to audit and edit your tone of voice guide.
So, after you’ve written a wonderful tone of voice guide and you’re feeling rather proud of it, one of the biggest hurdles is still ahead: getting people to actually use it.
Here are a few tips to help make that happen.
Write a short introduction to the guide that explains it’s a framework to help create useful content for customers, not a rigid grammar bible. Make reading it part of onboarding new staff members. Encourage people to add to it and edit it.
As author Jonathan Culver said: ‘The English language is a work in progress. Have fun with it.’
Don’t leave your guide in a shared Drive to die! Rather than housing it in a boring document format, ask a designer to bring it to life. Adding visual examples to help tell the story of your tone of voice will mean people are more likely to engage, learn and retain the information.
Your tone of voice guide should live in your overall brand guidelines, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a microsite for your guide, develop a mini quiz to lead people through it or create a video version.
A pro tip is to actually publish your tone of voice guide on your website. Why more brands don’t do this baffles me, because it’s a brilliant way of subtly indicating how great you are as a brand without it looking like that’s what you’re doing.
One of my favourite tone of voice examples is from the bank Monzo. Their tone of voice is published on their website and constantly updated. It’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain of what they’re trying to achieve as a brand, as well as being an exceptional example and inspiration for other brands.
Publishing your tone of voice makes you accountable for the principles you’ve laid out in the guidelines, because customers can see it and call you out if they think that isn’t how you communicate. This is a great motivator for sticking to it. It will also be easily accessible to all who may need it.
A style guide is a book or document that outlines the preferred way to write within an organisation. It generally covers things like key terms, formatting and (sometimes) design. And it will often contain a list of words, phrases and stylistic choices that you’ve chosen to use in your writing.
This list will be a reference that people writing in your brand tone of voice can use to check which spellings or versions of certain words and phrases they should use. There’ll always be certain spellings and stylistic choices that you prefer over others for communicating your message (and brand).
For example, I don’t like to capitalise words unless they’re a proper noun (the given name of something or someone), a title, at the start of a sentence or I’M VERY EXCITED. So, unless told otherwise (perhaps via a style guide), I would always default to not using capitals.
A style guide is different to a tone of voice guide because a tone of voice guide should explain how we write, and a style guide should explain what we write.
Your tone guide should show how you adapt the brand voice in different situations. Your style guide will contain the guidance on grammar, punctuation, stylistic choices and how your brand writing should look.
One of my favourite style guide examples is from the Guardian newspaper. They update it and publish it often, which is a great tactic because you can peer behind the scenes and understand their standpoint on things that go deeper than simple language choices. Have a look here for lots of style guide inspiration.
Visual snippet from the Guardian’s style guide:
Another wonderful style guide example (especially if you’re in the market for a book) is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer – the copy chief at publisher Random House. Dreyer’s job means he edits copy day in, day out, so he knows a thing or two about writing style.
Style guides can be extremely helpful, but you may not need to create your own.
If you publish a lot of written content or have multiple people writing for your brand, it’s worth considering developing a style guide in addition to your tone of voice guide.
If you have a very small team of writers who share a good understanding of the brand style or if all your writing gets signed off by a brand ‘gatekeeper’, you might not need one.
The good thing about a style guide is that it ensures your linguistic and grammatical choices stay consistent across all your written communication. There isn’t a single correct way to write, and everyone naturally uses a different style.
For example, I personally like to use a lot of contractions. Left to my own devices, I’ll never write ‘I will’, ‘do not’ or ‘have not’, but choose ‘I’ll’, ‘don’t’ and ‘haven’t’ instead.
I do this because I feel it sounds more like natural speech. And I like to use simple language that’s easy to read and has a conversational tone, rather than a formal one. But everyone is different!
There are also many different spellings of the same words, such as the American English or the British English version of the same word. For example, should your team write ‘adviser’ or ‘advisor’, ‘aeroplane’ or ‘airplane’ and ‘visualise’ or ‘visualize’?
Each choice isn’t a question of right and wrong, it’s down to context, preference and considering who you’re writing for.
A brand tone of voice guide should be more than a few words on a PowerPoint slide buried inside your brand guidelines … Here's how to create a great brand voice and guide (that people actually use) @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
So, if you want to make sure your organisation’s writing is consistent, a style guide is a great tool to use. If you want this but are short on time and resources to develop your own, you could point your writers towards an existing style guide that suits the needs of your brand as well.
For example, the Government Digital Service’s style guide is a comprehensive list of British English grammar and usage.
[Editor’s note: You’re also welcome to download a PDF of our own style guide, The Write Stuff. It covers not only our in-house style choices but also includes sections on email and web-writing best practice and writing for a global audience.]
Finally, before you head off to create your own tone of voice guidelines, here’s some inspiration. These are some of my favourite guides that brands have published online:
Monzo’s tone of voice guide is brilliant. This is mainly because they were the first finance brand to acknowledge the fact that trust in banks is at an all-time low in part due to the way banks talk. Often, customers feel alienated by the complex language and jargon that big banks use. So Monzo built a brand around communicating in a jargon-free, accessible and genuinely friendly way.
This article articulates why they published their tone of voice on their website and the benefits they’ve gained from doing so.
A snippet from the Monzo tone of voice:
The Greenpeace tone of voice guide is a comprehensive and thorough example. It’s good because it offers examples from their own writing, and uses a ‘this, not this’ format, so users can understand what to do, but also what not to do.
A snippet from the Greenpeace tone of voice guide showing their voice principles:
Government Digital Service
The Government Digital Service is an agency that helps the UK Government communicate online. They use writing principles that make sure their writing is inclusive for anyone who might need information relating to the UK.
For example, they encourage writers to write for a reading age ability of 9 because they recognise that people skim-read rather than take in every single word, especially online.
A snippet from the Government Digital Service’s content writing guide, ‘Writing for GOV.UK’:
Taking the time to pin down your organisation’s values and voice is a great opportunity to unify and strengthen your brand, better engage your audience and create a more consistent customer experience.
If you’re ready to start creating your brand tone of voice guide, I hope this article and dose of inspiration helps. Good luck!
If you’d like a starting point for creating your company style guide, talk to us about licensing and adapting our own guide, The Write Stuff.
And if you’ve got a tone of voice you’re proud of but you’d like to train your people to use it in their writing, we can help with that too – just get in touch to talk about how.
Image credit: Asier Romero / Shutterstock
Stephanie is a senior content consultant at digital strategy agency Brilliant Noise, where she helps clients with all areas of their digital content – from social media and influencers to big creative campaigns. Her background is in social media and marketing, having previously been head of marketing for fashion brand American Apparel, as well as working for start-up social media app HeyHub.
Stephanie shares her expertise in making an impact online as a guest author on the Emphasis blog.
Posted by: Stephanie Joy Hubbard
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