Copywriting tone of voice: an A to Z 9 March 2016

Image for Nottingham copywriter on copywriting tone of voice

Once upon a time, tone of voice was something that people associated with a heated debate. Now when I talk with businesses about content and copywriting, I can see that tone of voice has gone mainstream. Most company-owners recognise the value of tone of voice. But what does it actually involve? And which myths and misconceptions still linger? I share some pointers in this A to Z…


A great tone of voice communicates the attitude of a company and its approach to the world. Like an example? Look no further than Innocent, an oft-quoted example thanks to its simple and easily recognisable style. Slice any way you want into a company’s marketing content and their tone of voice should speak clearly about their attitude to their business and their customers.


Bold equals tone of voice, right? Not quite. This brings us to a common misconception about tone of voice – that in order to be successful, it must be bold, brash and even bolshy! Yes, bold can work in some situations, as with my client who wanted a sarcastic tone of voice. But it shouldn’t be the default setting of every tone of voice.


C is for (what else?) copywriting, because tone of voice lies right at the very heart of content. Every copywriting strategy and project should ideally stem from a clear and concise (more C words) tone of voice.


The difference is the gap between you and other companies. Can your tone of voice be warm and light hearted where others in your industry sound formal and detached? Can your tone of voice more closely echo the style and priorities of your ideal customer? Your copywriting tone of voice could be essential to voicing the added value you offer. Just one example is the tone of voice I developed for a client in an industry traditionally associated with fear-mongering and negative stories in the press. We’ve made a conscious decision to steer his copywriting messages and tone of voice away from the fear factor and he’s seeing great results.


Empathy and emotion are big marketing buzzwords right now. But I do think that the growing recognition of the value of emotion in copywriting is a positive thing. Empathy is not automatically appropriate for every company’s tone of voice, but it is powerful when used in the right setting.


When it comes to your copywriting tone of voice, are you a follower or a leader? Are you aping one particular company’s style or mimicking the way people in your industry usually talk? Look at finding a tone of voice which helps to define you as a leader rather than a follower.


There’s a lot involved with creating and establishing a sustainable copywriting and content strategy. But don’t just view tone of voice as an additional chore. Done right, it can provide a valuable guide for your content. How? By helping you identify what it is your business stands for – its values, identity and ambitions – far beyond just finding the right words.


Don’t let yourself get into a habit of writing one way about your business. Just because it’s always been done one way doesn’t mean that a particular tone of voice is going to continue working forever! Break the habit and see what happens.


Get your tone of voice right and it will stand for your entire business identity and make it more recognisable. Stick to a bland, generic voice and your content is much more likely to be overlooked.


Anyone who visits my Twitter feed will know how strongly I feel about jargon in business copywriting. I can’t think of any memorable tone of voice where jargon makes an appearance, except perhaps when it’s used ironically. So why do so many companies still let jargon get in the way?


Not the one associated with London taxi drivers, this knowledge is the one which can make your tone of voice stand for what’s important about your business. That is, your company’s ethics, approach, history and audience – the things which make up its identity and value.


A simple list can be great starting point for your copywriting tone of voice. Put together a list of words which reflect what you are and what you’re about. Which words would sum you up? Conversely, which words would you never associate with your business?


Imagine wearing slippers with a business suit. Or coordinating a bow tie with a baseball cap. Not great, unless you’re taking part in an arty Paris fashion show. It’s this kind of mismatch that you probably don’t want in your copywriting tone of voice. Is your business all about fun, but your tone of voice all about pressure to sell? Or perhaps your company is focused on professional services of a sensitive nature, but your tone of voice is too much on the casual side? It’s time to mind the gap.


I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in copywriting… one in which many companies sound nice. Just plain old nice. As I explain in this blog post, nice does not equal an effective tone of voice. Nice for the sake of it equals bland. Finding your tone of voice means going beyond just sounding friendly. You want to work out exactly what your potential audience will respond to.


A great tone of voice should open up the possibilities. A poor tone of voice will close doors by failing to establish and nurture a connection with your potential customers. Just like the difference between an open question and a closed question, a great tone of voice could help you reach out to the right people in the right way.


Ah, personality. The vital spice in great business connections. A powerful tone of voice should sum up the personality of your business. In a crowded world, personality counts for a lot. P also stands for personas – the marketing personas which will help guide the goals and the style of your tone of voice.


Question – what’s going to help you define your tone of voice? Asking the right questions, of course! Questions like – what does your business stand for? What’s different about what you do? How do your most loyal customers talk about your business?


So you’ve asked great questions about your business and that’s got you started on your tone of voice. Now it’s time to do some research. What tone of voice are your competitors using? How effective is it? Apply some carefully targeted research and you’ll be more likely to define a tone of voice which is distinctively yours and relevant to your audience.


A great tone of voice should work as a social asset. It’s much more than just words online or on paper. It’s your connector and your link with the people you want to reach. What can you do to make sure that your tone of voice builds connections instead of blocking them?


Your tone of voice is a way of setting the level of the conversation you want to have with people. That means talking and not shouting. Is your content trying too hard? Is your tone of voice overwhelmed with sales words too early on?


Do your potential clients really understand what you’re all about? Do they know why you’re the best choice ? With the right tone of voice, you can upgrade your content and make your messages even clearer.


Here’s a tip. Verbalise it. Test your tone of voice by reading your content out loud. How does it come across? Does it flow? Does it sound like something written for humans or is it robot language?


A common misconception is that copywriting tone of voice is just about words – lots and lots of nice words. As a copywriter, I’m a big fan of words. But tone of voice isn’t simply about packing a load of words together. Or getting heavy with the hyperbole. It means selecting and using exactly the right words at the right time.


I bet you were wondering which word I’d find for X! Well, this one is relevant because when a tone of voice works, it provides X-ray insight into your business and its value.


Yes, you. How does your tone of voice reflect you and your business? I’m a regular ghost blogger for the director of a successful business network and one of her biggest worries when we started working together was how I’d be able to reflect her personality. We’ve honed a tone of voice which speaks for my client and keeps her written tone of voice consistent with her character.


Zany, wacky, weird – whichever one it is, avoid the temptation to make your tone of voice deliberately strange for the sake of it. Start with what will work for your market and your audience and you’ll find that your tone of voice will strengthen rather than undermine your online and offline presence.

Got something to say about tone of voice? Add your comments below or get in touch!

Camilla Zajac, Green Light Copywriting, March 2016

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