An accuser wags a finger in your face and says, “Don’t take that tone of voice with me!”
Ever heard that plea from someone you've upset? Unless you’re some kind of communication super-specialist, you probably have—just like the rest of us.
And although you may never have connected that phrase with anything relating to your business (because hopefully you haven’t heard it from an upset client), the advice is one that all of us freelancers and small-business owners need to heed!
The right message communicated in the wrong way can leave your audience indifferent to your brand and giving you a cold shoulder! On the contrary, discovering the right tone of voice to communicate your brand message will help your audience warm up to your brand and welcome your products or services into their lives! Does your brand use the right tone of voice? Find out!
More than something testy teenage boys frequently get wrong, tone of voice can make the difference between your brand being “ignored” or “adored” by your ideal audience. Let’s see how...
Tone of Voice: Because How You Say it Matters
As we’ve discussed in other tutorials here on Envato Tuts+, every good small business or freelance needs to develop a unique voice for their brand in order to resonate with their ideal audience and find success. We've reviewed the importance of branding:
Today, we’re drilling down a level beyond that.
A Brand Voice Consists of Two Things:
- The message: What you communicate with your audience.
- The tone: How do you communicate with your audience.
Your brand message tells people what you do.
Ultimately this message should also be connected to the reasons why you do what you do, which we’ve discussed in the importance of finding your brand values.
Given that you’ve done the work to find the what and the why of your brand already, we now need to tackle the how.
How Can You Communicate Your Message to Successfully Reflect Your Deeper Purpose?
If you communicate the right message in the wrong way, your audience will react:
"Don’t take that tone of voice with me!"
Except in the business world, you won’t so much get a scolding (which at least lets you know something’s wrong), you’ll just get indifference and a cold shoulder towards your brand.
The right tone of voice, on the contrary, will help your ideal audience warm up to your brand and open their arms (and wallets) to welcome your products or services into their lives!
The Common Business Tone and Why It’s Problematic
Despite the importance of tone of voice, a lot of businesses (from one-person small businesses all the way up to large-scale organizations) seem to stop their branding process right after determining their message to the world.
“This is what we want to say to people and we’ll paste it all over our website and products!” (Or at least that’s how I imagine a voice branding meeting to end in most cases.)
A flat, uninteresting, and uninspiring tone of voice that most businesses seem to share and that can only be characterized by one adjective: boring.
And boring is the worst thing you can ever do to your business. From all the adjectives in the English dictionary, boring is the one you never want to go for.
Choose to be innovative, controversial, loud, friendly, funny, whimsical, reliable, traditional even… but never boring!
A boring tone of voice is the number-one business killer on the planet! (Well, okay, no official study was ever done to prove this, but I’m confident that “boring tone of voice” would be the case if anyone thoroughly researched what kills a business the fastest.)
No one wants to hang out with, or buy from, “boring.”
Why You Want a Branded Tone of Voice
So if I’m arguing that a boring tone of voice can ruin your business, how is it that an interesting tone of voice can save your business or even make it thrive?
Glad you asked!
Your tone of voice adds another dimension to the personality of your brand. The tone of voice your brand takes helps deliver your message through a certain emotion to your audience, rather than hard, cold logic. And as many a research have shown, emotions play a primary role to our buying decisions.
Think of It This Way
Let’s say you were shopping at your local grocery store when a personality-devoid stranger approached you and began to bore you about the great features of a product in his hands. Would you try it? No. You’d just wave the boring person out of your way like you would a pesky fly and keep on going.
But let’s say as soon as you turn the isle you run into your favorite person in the whole world who’s holding the same exact product and upon seeing you says: “This is great! You should try it!” And you’d immediately take the product, your face lighting up, and add it to your basket.
Same product, same message; different presentation, different result.
Why Develop Your Tone of Voice?
Developing a tone of voice that enhances your brand’s personality will help you:
- Connect with your audience on a deeper, emotional level.
- Make a positive impression of your brand in your ideal audience’s mind.
- Express the values you represent as a brand to your audience.
- Promote a long-lasting relationship with your audience that will ultimately drive their buying behavior.
Remember, people don’t just buy products or services they like or need. They choose to buy these products or services from brands they like and trust. And the right tone of voice can help your brand score high on the likeability scale.
The Right Tone of Voice
So, if “boring” is the wrong tone of voice for any business, what’s the right tone of voice for your business?
There is none!
And by that I mean, there isn’t a specific one.
Your brand’s tone of voice has nothing to do (in most cases) with the industry you’re in. Nothing says that a photographer must have this tone, a web designer the other tone, and a video editor another.
Granted, if you’re a lawyer, for example, you might want to stay away from an uber-cool street-hip tone of voice. (Unless, of course, you’re working for the rights of troubled youth, and then you might want to blend that tone into your message to attract your ideal audience…)
Every brand has a nearly endless array of choices regarding which tone of voice to use.
So how do you choose the right one? Download your free worksheet and let’s find out!
1. Go Back to Your Roots, A.K.A. Your Brand Values
Because your brand’s tone of voice needs to be in accordance with those values and needs to feel authentic to your brand.
If your business is driven by the value of innovation and cutting-edge design, you can’t communicate your brand messages (whether that’s your mission statement or emails you send to customers) in a traditional or uptight tone of voice.
The two distinct values and representation of your brand will create a disconnect and leave your audience baffled and untrusting of your brand.
Authenticity is important because people simply won’t connect to what feels fake.
If humor doesn’t come natural to you, don’t try to make your brand voice humorous. Who’ll think up all the jokes? Plus, poor attempts at humor that make people feel awkward rather than relaxed can have worse effects on your brand than even a boring tone of voice.
If you’re a natural introvert, for example, you’ll want to avoid a bubbly and energetic tone of voice that makes you squirm in your chair every time you attempt to write something. Your audience will pick up on the squirming in your message and simply walk away. Because no one’s comfortable squirming.
Just like your core values must be authentic to your brand and purpose, so does your brand’s tone of voice need to be authentic to your overall brand and its purpose.
2. Eavesdrop on Your Core Audience
Who are the people you’re trying to reach with your message and how do they communicate?
Ultimately, your purpose is to create deep connections with your audience. And speaking their language (down to the tone and expressions) is important for achieving that.
A hip tone of voice, for example, will sound different when addressing young moms between the ages of 25 - 35, then when addressing teenage girls who’re into fashion and makeup.
That’s when you can use a secondary adjective to help you better define your tone of voice.
- Hip but not juvenile, for the young moms.
- Hip and excitable, for teenage girls.
You may already have an inclination on how to generally address your audience and what sort of tone is generally appropriate. But the devil, as they say is in the details—never the generalities.
Find the places where your ideal audience hangs out online such as forums, blog comments, Facebook groups, etc. and “eavesdrop” on them to see how they speak to one another. What sort of tone would help you get through to them and get your message across?
3. Consider Your Competition
There may be a natural tendency to think that the “louder” you say your message the more you will be heard. But that’s not true. The person who yells the most is almost never the one to be taken the most seriously in a room.
Branding isn’t a screaming match. And especially if you’re in an industry where “loud” seems to be the default tone for most brands, you’re better off developing a different tone, more composed tone of voice.
Not only will that allow you to stand out from your competition, but you’ll also be able to attract the people who don’t particularly like all the loudmouths around.
Once you complete the exercises on your free worksheet you’ll be able to drill down to the tone of voice that will help you successfully deliver your message to your ideal audience!
Do You Need to Speak In That Tone of Voice All the Time?
Your brand is not a performance act and it should never feel that way—to you or your audience.
Defining your brand’s tone of voice and speaking your core messages in that tone is important. But you don’t need to be “in character” all the time.
Not every single line of text you ever write needs to be “funny” or “sophisticated” or “energetic” or “bold.” This isn’t to say that you can allow your messages to become boring. It simply means that it’s important to make the distinction between sticking to your tone and being clear in your message.
Not that you can’t do both at once. But you should never sacrifice the clarity of your message (or the sincerity of your apology, for example) for the sake of keeping your “branded” tone of voice.
(Or you may actually get an upset customer telling you not to take that tone of voice with them!)
Different brands stick to tonal messages to different extents, but as a rule of thumb the following messages should always be spoken in your brand voice and with your crafted tone of voice.
Messages to Craft Into Your Distinct Tone of Voice
- product names and service packages
- standard greetings and responses
These pieces of text will help add flavor and personality to your entire brand. So once you’ve defined your desired tone of voice, spend some time crafting those messages according to that tone.
The main body of text on your website, in your blog posts, in your emails, etc., should have at least some punches of your specific tone, but doesn’t need to be “tonal” from start to finish.
Tone of Voice in the Brand World
So what does a brand with a well-defined tone of voice sound like? Depends on the brand, right?
But here are some nice examples from around the web that illustrate how defining your tone of voice and applying it to your brand’s messages can help you stand out and create emotional connections with your audience.
1. Mailchimp, the Fun Email Marketing Software
Mailchimp is an email marketing software company that started back in 2001 when most of us weren’t even sure how to spell the word “software.”
And despite having a core clientele of other businesses that need to send “business communications” to their audience, Mailchimp has adopted a tone that’s anything but serious.
In fact, Mailchimp quickly became known for its fun and slightly quirky tone of voice. And not by accident! The company has openly stated that “one way we write empowering content is by being aware of our voice and our tone.”
But that’s not all! They even went a step further and created an entire Voice & Tone Guide that clearly explains how employees are to respond in different situations. And they don’t keep it a secret either! Their guide is readily available online for anyone to read, which is fantastic for anyone trying to understand how voice and tone come into branding!
2. Poo-Pourri, the Whimsical and Tongue-in-Cheek Toilet Queen
You read it right: Toilet Queen!
Poo-Pourri is a before-you-go toilet spray that eliminates bad odors and all proofs that a girl is anything but a non-poohing princess.
The interesting part is that Poo-Pourri was developed by a woman who couldn’t stand the odors that her boyfriend left floating about the bathroom. But understanding that men would never make the core audience of this business, the company has rightly geared its message towards young women.
Bathroom odors, however, is not a subject anyone wants to discuss openly at any time.
And taking the usual “serious” and hush-hush tone that companies selling preventative measures to unpleasant conditions (think every hair loss and eery adult incontinence product ever made) would only have made the brand…well, bomb!
Instead, Poo-Pourri chose to deliver its messages in whimsical tone of voice full of tongue-in-cheeks jokes that leave you no choice but loving the brand!
Forget about hiding embarrassing odors; Poo-Pourri makes you want to advertise to anyone and everyone that you’re part of this cool and funny gang!
Just take a look at their homepage and you’ll see their tongue-in-cheek tone of voice written large everywhere from their summer-season headline to “Drop an anchor anywhere” (followed by the factual (i.e. non-tonal) explanation of their actual summer scents) to their email list invitation to “Join the Potty” while “holding onto your britches.”
Poo-Pourri even takes its playful tone into its FAQ’s where visitors can ask all about poo!
Notice, however, that although it phrases the questions in a humorous way, the important answers get straight to the point to offer reassurance (rather than frustration) to worried customers.
The second answer below begins: "Don't worry—your beloved loo is safe with us." Admittedly, saying "beloved loo" is quite funny, but the cheekiness doesn't muddle the clarity of the answer.
3. Woot!, the Smarty-Pants Deals Site
Most of us haven’t gotten excited over a deal site since 2006 when we first subscribed to one daily-deal site or another.
After a month of deals, it all began sounding like old news and we deleted the emails, unopened, even if they offered us a palace for a penny.
But there’s one deal site that’s been around for years and has managed to maintain its enthusiasm and fan base through a smarty-pants tone of voice that’s slightly sarcastic (often self-sarcastic): Woot!
And since the products they offer come standard and they can’t get creative with their names, they get creative with their blog write-ups of those products:
How’s that for putting a new spin on a regular product?
And they maintain their sarcastic and offbeat tone in their banners for sales and offers. Like this message for getting your mother’s day deals....
Adorable! Maybe not.
But for the right audience this image can be powerfully entertaining.
Although not everyone would be inclined to buy a Mother's Day gift based on this banner, the Woot! clientele (who are accustomed to their biting sense of humor) certainly would!
What Tone of Voice Do You Take?
How do you communicate with your audience and what’s your brand voice? What sort of tones of voices have you seen from others that resonated with you as a customer?
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.