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Using Guidelines to Mind Your Tone

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This post is part of a series called All About Style Guides.
How to Create Style Guides for a Specific Audience
Front End Style Guides: Your Questions Answered

In this article I’m going to discuss why you need tone of voice guidelines, what to include, how to ensure they are used and refer to plenty of examples of existing guidelines from some well known organisations. This article assumes that you have already identified what tone of voice is most appropriate for your organisation.

Aiming for Authenticity

All organisations talk to people and whether new or well established, small or large, they should have tone of voice guidelines. The detail within will vary depending on what organisation the guidelines are for but the reason why they are important is always the same.

Tone of voice guidelines will help you be authentic and consistent, two things that are vital to any brand but often not achieved.

To be authentic is to talk to your audience in a way that accurately reflects the values and culture of your brand. If you are a large corporate organisation that is formal and serious then the language you use and the content you share should reflect this. Similarly, if you are a laid back organisation you can afford to be more informal and chatty with your content and language.

Government departments, local councils, solicitors and other similar organisations will need people to trust them and see them as professional bodies. If they are too relaxed it won’t instill those values in their communications.

In the style guide for GOV.UK for example, they state:

GOV.UK is for anyone who has an interest in how UK government policies affect them. Using this style guidance will help us make all GOV.UK information readable and understandable. It has a welcoming and reassuring tone and aims to be a trusted and familiar resource.

If you make ice cream or are targeting a younger audience, amongst other examples, you can afford to be more informal with your tone.

A good way of checking if companies talk in the way you think is authentic to them is to read how they describe themselves on the about pages of their websites. Here are some examples from well-known international brands:

Starbucks

“To say that Starbucks purchases and roasts high-quality whole bean coffee is very true. That’s the essence of what we do — but it hardly tells the whole story. 
Our coffeehouses have become a beacon for coffee lovers everywhere. Why do they insist on Starbucks? Because they know they can count on genuine service, an inviting atmosphere and a superb cup of expertly roasted and richly brewed coffee every time.”

This is a professional but personable tone. They are ‘speaking human’ which is a much quoted necessity according to many tone of voice related articles. They explain what they do concisely and in a friendly tone.

Disney

“The Walt Disney Company, together with its subsidiaries and affiliates, is a leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise with five business segments: media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive media.”

Whilst this may seem far too formal and stuffy for the creators of many an animated film, Disney is a huge corporation and this description and tone is about the larger organisation, so is authentic. The tone of voice you get if you visit one of their theme parks is much more friendly and light hearted.

British Airways

“British Airways is a full service global airline, offering year-round low fares with an extensive global route network flying to and from centrally-located airports.”

This is quite wordy for such a short description. The tone here has connotations of a high end, professional and well established company behind the language.

Whatever you approach, it has to be authentic. If you speak to your customers in a friendly way on your marketing collateral then they should be greeted the same way when they see you in person. This brings us onto consistency.

Being Consistent

Your content and tone must be consistent or else it won’t seem authentic. The two go hand in hand. How you communicate with your audience on the phone, on the web, face to face, in emails and in print should all be consistent with one another so no matter where a customer comes into contact with your brand, they understand it is you talking to them. You may need to tweak your content if you are targeting different audiences but even then there should be a level of consistency.

The British Council perfectly summarise this in their guidelines.

All bases are covered there in one simple sentence. Guidelines can help you with all of this, but where do you begin? What should be included? How much detail should you go into? Well, the first thing of course is to understand your brand, values and culture. To produce guidelines that keep your content and tone on track you first need to know what your personality is. This article assumes that such information is known, as how you find your tone of voice and define your brand is a separate task entirely that can vary significantly depending on budget and resources.

It is good to determine at the start what detail you want to go into with the guidelines. They can evolve as the process develops but your organisation size and structure will influence how prescriptive you need to be. If you are a large organisation with a lot of content creators, like a University for example, you will need to be more stringent. If you are a team of six all working side by side then a 30-page document is likely to be overkill.

The University of Manchester have separate content and tone of voice guidelines and the latter alone is eleven pages. Many organisations have made their guidelines available online, so a quick Google search can lead you to these to see how others have implemented their own rules.

Whether you opt for a one pager or 20 pages, the process of putting tone of voice guidelines together requires a lot of questions to be asked. They can include, but are not limited to things such as should we use:

  • acronyms
  • abbreviations
  • contractions

Do we need to consider:

  • localisation
  • language
  • gender

All of these questions must be answered honestly with the organisation’s brand, culture, values and audience firmly in mind.

Putting Your Own Guidelines Together

Once you have an idea of what content and tone you need to provide guidelines for it is time to start putting your own together. Using the University of Manchester as an example again, they have listed eight rules in their tone of voice guidelines. Here’s rule one:

As you can see, they have stated the rule and then tell the reader why that rule exists. They go on to give an example of this rule in practice with a how to sound and how not to sound sentence.

Not only is this concise, but they are showing their readers how to achieve the desired tone of voice rather than just telling them. The example they use is also relevant to the University which puts the rule into context for the content creator or editor.

The NHS also has a lot of people create a lot of different content so as you’d expect, their guidelines are pretty detailed too. Here’s a snippet from those:

As well as highlighting that the values and principles of the NHS should be supported, they also ask two important questions.

  1. Could your text be spoken out loud to the reader?
  2. Does it sound as if it’s being addressed to an individual?

This is actually a good task that you can carry out easily if you are writing content. You may feel ridiculous talking to yourself in an empty room, but when you hear what you have written spoken aloud it can highlight some obvious flaws in the language used and tone of voice. Providing hints and practical advice like this within your tone of voice guidelines can help the content creators, especially if new to the organization or if your team is spread far and wide. We’ll come back to that in a short while.

Considering Audience

Not only should the guidelines stress the importance of being mindful of the company values, brand and personality, but they should be mindful of the audience for that company too.

The Macmillan Cancer Support tone of voice guidelines show that every word matters and that the words and language you chose can significantly alter the tone of voice you convey. Depending on the type of business and service you offer, this granular detail may not be necessary but if it is and your guidelines don’t cover it then you risk offending the very people you are targeting.

The Macmillan guidelines include this list of words and terms not to be used:

Clearly those words have negative connotations, victims, sufferers, battling and fighting. So Macmillan also include this list:

Already the tone has changed to one that is softer and more sympathetic. This is absolutely necessary here as the chances are that when someone is reading literature from MacMillan they're in a heightened state of anxiety or upset.

Again the examples included in the guidelines are relevant to the organisation and with such specific direction stated in the guidelines it would be hard for someone to stray far from the desired tone.

The Macmillan guidelines also prove that every word counts when it comes to tone of voice. Amazon proved this too when I recently saw this:

There are five words there that stand out: Get yourself a little something. They could quite easily have said ‘recommended for you’ or ‘related products’ but they went for something much more human and personable. I was very nearly convinced to make a purchase too and have since seen that again. Tone of voice really can influence purchasing decisions and so guidelines are needed to ensure every word is considered and shared in the right tone.

Presentation Counts

Although the guidelines we have looked at so far have been PDF’s accessed from websites or simple pages, MailChimp have a whole website dedicated to their tone of voice because it is such a huge part of their brand.

The guidelines are found at voiceandtone.com. They are a must read for anyone looking at writing or refining their own guidelines.

These guidelines cover everything from social media, error messages and newsletters to app copy, blog posts and call to actions.

Voice and Tone includes a detail I’ve yet to see in other guidelines, they actually list the user’s feelings. Then they give an example of what the user would say when they feel a certain way, share tips on how MailChimp should talk to that user and then give an example response.

It is a wonderful example of showing and not just telling and also how they consider the user when writing every word.

Here’s their success message:

Note that as the user is feeling good, the language here can be casual and even humorous. Let’s look at the page for the error messages:

The user will be frustrated and stressed and they have reached a problem so the language here needs to be more serious, no jokes and calm. If you’re writing for MailChimp, these guidelines and the examples within are really good at letting you know what tone to adopt and why.  

Practice What You Preach

Voice and Tone is a good benchmark for detailed online guidelines but what they do that all other guidelines should do too, is write in the tone they are dictating.

If people are reading guidelines that state in an overly complicated and formal way that you need to write in a chatty, casual manner then it creates a disconnect. Writing the guidelines in the tone they are trying to get others to understand will be a big help as they will be experiencing the guidelines in practice.

Using Guidelines Within Your Organization

Having the best guidelines in the world is one thing, getting people in your company to use them can be quite another.

In an ideal world the key stakeholders and perhaps other team members, would have been involved in any process you adopted to define your tone of voice before the guidelines. That way when the guidelines reach them they will be on board with why they are needed.

It goes beyond the top-level team members though. Everyone in the company should have an understanding of the tone of voice, from top to bottom and side to side. Some will be more involved with content and tone than others of course but most if not all will have contact with the audience in some capacity at some point.

Communicating across the company what the tone of voice is, how it can be achieved and why it is important is integral to achieving the authenticity and consistency we talked about earlier. How you share them depends on how many people you need to reach but chances are, attaching the guidelines to an email will result in many failing to read or understand the guidelines. Workshops may be necessary or add them to all team meeting agendas. Perhaps an internal campaign is necessary. The team need to engage with the guidelines rather than flick through them and put them in a draw forever more or file the email they received about them.

Maintenance

For larger companies, policing the tone of voice can be tricky so once guidelines are created and circulated, they can be supported by having allocated content gatekeepers, a content creation and checking process, editors and regular content audits (at least quarterly if a lot of content is being created). The audit can check all content, online and offline, against the tone of voice guidelines for consistency and yes, you guessed it, authenticity.

Reviewing and refining just as important as creating guidelines in the first place. If you have invested resource into finding your tone of voice, creating guidelines for it and sharing these with the team, it is dangerous practice to then never check the content being produced. Auditing should be an ongoing process that is assigned to someone specifically (internally or outsourced). The audit should go beyond online content too and look at emails, social media, phone manner and printed materials. This is leading into a whole other article, but if you have realised the importance of having tone of voice guidelines, let’s at least make sure they are being used and being used correctly.

Conclusion

With any luck I've made it clear why you need tone of voice guidelines. We looked at what should be included and how best to ensure they are used. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!

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