Before you even start typing you latest social media update, writing your next blog post or plotting a new email marketing campaign, you need to ask yourself this one simple question.

Who am I?

Or more to the point, who are we?

As a company, have you thought about whether you have a consistent personality in your communications?

Developing a tone of voice is one of the most powerful things you’ll do this year. And I’m going to show you how.

Why do I need a tone of voice?

With more and more brands going online, there’s a feeding frenzy going on. Everyone is into content and social, trying to engage the same customers.

What you need is to rise above the chatter. But how can tone of voice help you do that?

The role of a brand is to build trust and an emotional bond with your customers. Having a clearly defined, consistent tone of voice fosters trust and attachment. Trust and attachment equal engagement. Engagement equals enquiries and sales.

Brands spend $13bn a year on visual identity and just $2bn on verbal identity globally, according to language consultancy Lingua Brand. The disparity in spend is staggering, and it’s no wonder brands that do focus on verbal identity reap the rewards.

Innocent is an example of a brand with a really clear voice. It’s light-hearted, engaging and wholesome. It’s probably my favourite brand, purely because of the way it engages through written and verbal communications. And it’s authentic.

But how can a great tone of voice help companies?

Recently Mumsnet confirmed they had been hit by Heartbleed, the security bug. Its communications to members were on a risky topic, especially given that they were the first major brand to be hit. They had to be managed carefully.

What was interesting was that they wrote in their usual tone of voice. An excerpt from their website:

We know this has been an enormous pain in the rear end for some of you, and we’re really sorry about that.

What could have been a PR disaster, with backlash from its members, somehow wasn’t.

For me, the tone of voice is one of the key reasons it didn’t blow out of all proportion. They communicated in an authentic and human way, and the target audience responded to that.

Building a tone of voice is powerful stuff, and that’s why companies like 02 (Be More Dog) and Mailchimp (Send Better Email) are so focused on tone. So how do you go about achieving it?

send better email

Step one – laying the groundwork

Step one is about planning. Developing a tone of voice isn’t just a quick document you can throw together.

You need to understand your principles, brand values, vision and mission first. What does your business stand for? What is the fabric of your business? Is there something that makes you truly different?

I sat with a client once, and he told me the usual story. Well, we are focused on our customer, and we deliver great quality. He and I agreed that while these were valid points, all his competitors were saying the same. So we dug a little deeper, with some pointed questions.

He was a great guy, building products for people with health conditions. Whenever he was developing a new product, he spent time with people suffering with the condition he was working on. He observed their movements and behaviours. He sometimes sat with them for days with the objective of understanding their issues as if they were his own. He even tried to live with the same constraints.

This extreme depth of human emotion and empathy that he and his team had for the end user made up a core part of his brand, and consequently his brand personality.

Most brands will hire in an outside agency or marketing person to help with this, as it’s hard to do when you are inside the bubble. But you can do it yourself, by following a simple process.

Write as many personality types on cards as you can, that you feel you might display as a business. Lay them out on a (massive) table. Draw a line, from 0-10.

Then, ask your team, customers or friends to pick out each one, and place it on the scale – 0 if not like you at all, 10 if exactly like your business personality. There will likely be three or four which keep coming up at the 10 end. These are the ones you should explore in more detail.

Like the example above, dig deeper, and look for the strands of stories and human emotion.

The key outcome for all this is developing 4-5 key personality traits that can be used to develop your tone of voice. They need to be authentic, unique, and instantly tell me why I should buy from you and not anyone else.

Step Two – Find your voice

Now you have your personality traits, you need to translate them into action.

So how do you express this personality in words and tone? With so many words out there, how can you be truly unique?

A great way of doing this is picking some celebrities, film stars or musicians that you feel embody your brand. What is it about each of them that relates to your business? Then, narrow these down, until you have one, two or three, that you can really relate to.

When developing the tone, ask yourself, what would “person” say?

Then, with your person/people in mind, start developing a a usable document, written it in the tone itself.

The important thing here is to not write as a marketer, but as a story teller. Not as a dictator, but a sharer of ideas.

You should include:

  • What was the journey to this tone?
  • What person is a good example of your brand?
  • How should people write? Short/long sentences, summaries/detail?
  • What style of writing should they use? More like the Guardian or more like Heat Magazine?
  • Tips on sentences, grammar and punctuation
  • Fun things! – pictures, humour and stories!
  • Some key phrases and examples in context
  • What words to use
  • What words not to use

And one more tip – make it beautiful. It’s worth getting it designed up with illustrations, as they really paint a picture.

Step three – follow the guidelines!

The final step is to make sure you get your team on board with following the guidelines. From the accounts department to HR, from the receptionists to the sales people, you need to motivate everyone to follow the new tone.

It’s really important that you involve people early in the process, to avoid disengagement. This feeds back into part one – make sure you include your team in your brainstorms and development of the personality. Where involvement isn’t possible, keep them informed.

The next bit is radical and fun.

Splatter the guidelines on the walls. Visually remind people and use the language everywhere. Tone of voice isn’t just for marketers. Write your notice board messages, invoices and memos in the tone. Have fun with it!

By now you should have:

  • A clear idea of your mission, vision and values, and what they mean in terms of a truly unique selling point
  • A clear idea of how your selling points translate into language
  • An idea of how to develop and implement the tone and guidelines

Follow these three simple steps, and you’ll be a lot closer to a clear tone of voice.

The truth is, tone of voice develops and evolves. But taking these steps regularly will help you be more consistent and more unique – in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Do you agree that tone of voice is important? Or do you think each person should be allowed to present themselves as they wish?