When my partner got home from work earlier, he asked me what I’d done today. I told him I’d been researching tone of voice. “Oh,” he said, “That’s interesting. What have you learned? And will you be trying it out on me?” It was a timely reminder that tone of voice means something very different to copywriters than it does to the rest of the population.
For most people, tone of voice is used in phrases like: “Don’t take that tone of voice with me,” or “I don’t like your tone.” It’s usually a warning sign that you’ve overstepped the mark.
But for copywriters, it means something much more general. It’s the way your business comes across in its writing. It’s part of your overall brand. Think of your logo and brand colours as your visual identity and your tone of voice as your verbal identity.
Businesses with strong tones of voice are instantly recognisable. Take innocent drinks, for example. I bet you’ve smiled while reading their packaging. As a reminder, here’s how they describe their gorgeous greens smoothie:
Remember when your mum wouldn’t let you play out until you’d finished your peas? Being told to eat your greens was a bit of a pain, especially when there were go-carts and BMX’s in the world. That’s why we’ve made sure that drinking them is easy. Packed full of the finest fruits and green stuff we could find, we’ve managed to blend a deliciously refreshing smoothie that tastes far better than leftover sprouts and cold broccoli. 100% more tasty, in fact.
Give it a go. Your mum would be proud.
As another example, take a look at Brewdog’s About page. See how uncompromising, almost aggressive it sounds?
In 2007 James and Martin started BrewDog with a mission to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as they were. In April 2007, in a godforsaken industrial estate in north east Scotland, BrewDog came howling into the world.
Brands like innocent and Brewdog make sure their tone of voice filters into every part of their verbal world. Here are their error messages pages from their website, for example:
At the same time, they always make sure they’re appropriate in their tone. Think of it like this. You always speak in a certain way, but you also adapt it to different situations. You wouldn’t talk to your bank manager in the same way as you’d speak to your friends but the essence of you would be there in both conversations. As a copywriter, I know what I mean by tone of voice but it’s probably more accurate to think about voice and tone. Voice is the essence of you. Tone is the way you’re responding to the situation you face.
Why is tone of voice important?
It’s interesting to look at different examples of tone of voice. But perhaps the most pressing question is simply – is it important? And if it is, why?
Well, a simple answer to a simple question. Yes, tone of voice is important. As we can see from the innocent and Brewdog examples, tone of voice creates an emotional response in you. And an emotional response is important.
A Harvard Business Review report found: “[Emotional motivators] provide a better gauge of customers’ future value to a firm than any other metric, including brand awareness and customer satisfaction, and can be an important new source of growth and profitability.”
And a Motista report found that: “[E]motionally connected customers are more valuable than those who are highly satisfied, or even those who perceive a brand to be differentiated.” In fact, they have a 306% higher lifetime value.
Let’s explore why tone of voice delivers such powerful responses.
Tone of voice gives you a personality and helps you stand out
Think for a minute about how much information is all around us. It’s mind-boggling. Domo reports that every minute in 2018:
- 473,400 tweets were sent
- LinkedIn gained 120 new professionals
- 3,877,140 Google searches were conducted
- Americans used 3,138,420GB of internet data
If you want to stand out in all this noise, you need to provide valuable content with a clear personality. Or, as Jason Fried puts it:
When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you’re saying, “Our products are like everyone else’s, too.” Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody?
Tone of voice tells people who you are and gives you authenticity
Because tone of voice gives you a personality it tells people who you are and what you’re like. You can imagine the people at innocent being laidback, fun, a bit cheeky. Whereas the people at Brewdog would probably be hipsters who tell things like they are and want to do things a bit differently.
When you know what someone is like, you know whether you share their values. And having shared values is a powerful driver for people because it drives trust. And as Edelman research points out, 90% of consumers globally say it’s more important that they can trust the brands they buy. A 2014 study by Cohn and Wolfe found that 63% of consumers would buy from a company they believed was authentic instead of from a competitor.
Tone of voice makes you seem more coherent and more trustworthy
Having shared values and expressing them in the way you write drives trust at a macro level. It also drives trust at a micro level.
Take a moment to think about some recent interactions you’ve had with a company or brand. Have you noticed any inconsistencies? For example, have you:
- noticed that the way they write on their website is different to the way they come across on Twitter?
- found that the way they sound in their printed marketing literature is different to the emails you receive from them?
How did noticing the inconsistencies make you feel about the company? A bit confused, a bit mistrustful? Of course, it’s easy to explain the inconsistencies – different things were written by different people. But if different people take different approaches to writing, maybe there’ll be different approaches to product quality or customer service? Can you be sure you’ll get what you expect? As Stewart Hodgson of Fabrick says, different tones of voice across different media can “leave an organisation looking a touch schizophrenic to the outside world.”
Having a coherent tone of voice can make all the difference between securing a sale and not securing it. As Sam Ladlow of Tangent says: “Getting key decision makers from initial engagement to learning about your service and taking the time to book a demo is hard. But it’s this complexity that makes consistent branding all the more important across every channel.” One false voice could be all someone needs to make the decision not to buy.
Tone of voice makes your message more successful
I started this piece by saying that when I said tone of voice to my partner, he automatically assumed it was something verbal. In copywriting terms, it’s something written. But remembering that we usually assume tone of voice is a verbal thing does reveal why it’s so important to get it right.
Albert Mehrabian studied non-verbal communication in the 1970s. He found that:
- 7% of what we communicate consists of the literal content of the message
- 38% of what we communicate consists of tone, intonation and volume
- 55% of what we communicate consists of body language.
In a written context, 55% of communication goes out of the window straightaway. That means you’re left with the content of the message and the tone of the message. And the tone of the message is far and away more important than the content.
Or, to put it another way, it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it that’s more likely to get you the results you want.
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