What's the big deal about tone of voice? 27 June 2021

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Let me tell you about one of my favourite client calls…

I remember it well. The owner of a local and very successful company phoned out of the blue and asked me to be sarcastic.

He said they needed a sarky tone of voice to help sell their high-end products in what was a pretty crowded marketplace. And this was about 15 years ago before the chatty, quirky style was everywhere. This large company didn’t want safe. They weren’t after bland professional. They wanted a touch of snark and they needed me to define that tone of voice for them.

Selling with a smile

Their new tone of voice was so successful in helping them stand out in a competitive industry that one of their biggest competitors ended up imitating it!

So, why was it so effective? Because it had chutzpah. It wasn’t talking down to the potential customer. Or keeping a polite distance. Its humour made it more fun to read. Especially as the products it was talking about were everyday household items, though high-quality.

Look again

As a copywriter, I always aim to look differently at a subject. This tone of voice pushed the process to the maximum. The content felt fresh as a result and people really responded to it. As a result, the company went on to become known for its tone of voice. Years later, even with new owners, the business still retains the same style. I’m not saying that everyone, from accountants to engineers, should suddenly adopt a sarcastic style. Or that quirky fits every business.

Beyond quirky

This is a particular lingering misconception about tone of voice, as I’ve written before. Some still view it as simply about making your content quirky. Many people rightly admired the tone of voice created by Innocent Drinks. It had a style and an attitude which gave smoothies a whole new character. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right tone of voice for every type of brand and business.

Because quirky or cute doesn’t fit every company. Yet the misconception that it does has led to the rise of many brands sounding rather alike. You know which ones I mean.

The voice you remember

We’ve all read it. The friendly voice which stays with us, even when the product or service doesn’t seem directly relevant to us. Or the little throwaway line at the end of an ad which makes us smile wryly. The unexpected emotional connection. That’s the value of a powerful tone of voice. The other messages you’ve forgotten about or didn’t even notice? Those are companies which perhaps didn’t make the most of their tone of voice.

What’s yours?

But what about your tone of voice? Where’s your copywriting sweet spot? How do you find a style which reflects you and also speaks to your customers?

Here’s a radical thought… have fun with it. Take some time out and enjoy finding your tone of voice. Start with something small and concrete – an existing piece of content. Now spend time with it. Look at it through the eyes of your customers. Look at your marketplace. Then, get creative. Try rewriting your content in different ways. Keep the explorations open-ended and you might find the process easier than you think!

The tone of voice double bind

Achieving that perfect tone of voice can often feel like a double bind. A company says they want to be professional but also human. Or they want to be approachable but authoritative too. Perhaps they’re looking for funny but respectable.

This is why the copywriting process calls for a lot of thought and a little experimentation. Here’s another tone of voice double bind for you: don’t always play it safe but don’t be edgy for the sake of it. Create content which is attention-grabbing but not jarring. See what I mean? It’s tricky to tick all the boxes without spoiling the balance.

Breaking out of character

Sometimes it’s easier to spot when a tone of voice isn’t working than when it is. The other day I ordered some books from a well-known company. They sent me a lovely, friendly email to let me know the good news that my books had been dispatched. It was written as if it had been penned by the books themselves. In a nice, chatty first-person style. Yet something about it bothered me…

When I thought about it for a bit, I realised the reason it didn’t feel right was because it was out of character. The quirky, personal voice didn’t fit with the rest of the company’s branding. It felt like a break in the rapport I already had with the business.

Bear that potential disconnect in mind when you’re looking at your tone of voice. Is there anything jars in a negative way? Keep the surprises for positive effect rather than to distract from your message and brand.

Find your voice

It might take a little time to identify your tone of voice. It might even prove easier to work with a copywriter to help you find it. But once you do get there, you should be pleasantly surprised about how beneficial it is to your whole branding and content development process.

Done right, your tone of voice can help to guide the design and marketing process, providing a focal point for your approach. And much more. It really is a big deal. Because, in a crowded marketing world, finding your own voice could help people find you.

Camilla Zajac, Green Light Copywriting, June 2021

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