Let’s talk about that most elusive of goals: tone…

Nope, I don’t mean your wobbly upper arms. If your business has a digital side, you’ve probably seen or heard discussions of tone of voice. In person, tone is a relatively easy thing to suss out, describe, and hit. If you’ve ever gurgled to a baby, deepened your voice and shortened your sentences in salary negotiations, or found yourself using the word “totes” while at dinner with girlfriends, you know that tone changes depending on the context: your audience and your role in a conversation.

But when you take all that context and shove it into the confines of a QWERTY keyboard, you’re suddenly faced with the real problem of communicating your tone, digitally.

Engaged, as I am, in the business of marketing, I’ve been watching tone trends with a keen eye. First things first: there is a ton of toneage out there. In my research for this piece, I saw resources break down tone of voice into the expected – “friendly,” “professional,” – and the less-expected: “salesy.” Let’s just say at the top that I don’t think anyone should strive for a “salesy” tone.

But how should you sound? Tone of voice, like everything else, has changed with the times. Though we still have classics – your black blazer, akin to your professional tone – we now have some trendy tones to consider. Your, ahem, choker. (I can’t believe chokers are back. Again).

As I see it, these are the main tones of voice to consider for your digital side, in descending order of formality:

Expert. You earn your clients’ business because you’re the best in the biz, offering real knowledge and insight. Based on your expertise, your client may choose your dental services, enlist your help in decorating their office suite, or sign up for your monthly newsletter on the latest machinations in Washington. If you are a selling yourself as an expert, you want to write with a tone that conveys authority. Use industry-specific language (always being sure to be clear so that the uninitiated can understand you, of course), write in a straight-forward, direct manner, and use a relatively formal tone. Emojis need not apply for your webpage, and though you use social media to share noteworthy articles or relay your opinion on pertinent news and research, you probably don’t need an Instagram feed. For a great example of an expert tone of voice, check out Spring Insight favorite TalentFront. Recruiting expert Marcia Call makes clear she knows the ins and outs of her business, using industry lingo and clearly communicating with the human resources professionals in her audience. At the same time, she doesn’t make the lay people break out the dictionaries or try to decode spreadsheets.

Trustworthy. If you stand out from the crowd based on your ethical standards, or your ability to keep you clients’ data safe, or the rigorous background checks you require of your database of childcare providers, you want to exude trustworthiness. You’re still striving for a level of formality, but unlike experts, your number one goal is to make your clients or customers feel comfortable. Don’t make them feel like you’re hiding the ball, or talking at a level above their heads. Provide your information in easy-to-access language, alongside graphics or step-by-step instructions, if needed. You might be the best in the biz, but assuring members you’re the “most trusted” will communicate your reliability. Check out care.com for a good example of a trustworthy tone of voice. From the language, to the photos, to the reassuring checklists, this company has worked hard to let you know that your loved ones are safe with it.

Friendly. A friendly tone is less formal. As the tone suggests, you’re being friendly. You trust your friends — but you also have a relaxed, casual air. Friends are in your in-group, so you use language that is light and casual. Contractions, abbreviations, even well-known internet slang and abbreviations – think “BTW” – are all possibly okay here. I find this tone to be particularly effective when the business or organization is providing something personal to my life. I don’t necessarily mean lingerie, but lingerie certainly falls into this category. These days, we outsource a lot – from dinner prep to handy man services – and a friendly tone sets the stage for a cozy relationship. It says to your customer: I might see your skivvies (when I wash and dry them – get your mind out of the gutter!) but that’s cool: we’re all friends here! A beautiful example of a friendly tone can be found at Letote. This great site curates a monthly wardrobe box for clients, and allows clients to return items they don’t want. To trust that a stylist will be able to put their thumb on the pulse that is my fashion style, I need to think of them as my friend. A bottomless closet I can borrow from, fun banter, and assurances that they won’t demand commitments, unlike your “needy ex” – Letote is a friend I want to have.

On-trend. Friends are great. But if you’re looking for someone to push you to your limits, you’re looking to be on-trend. An on-trend tone stays up on the latest #hashtags, uses the fanciest and newest internet acronyms, and references of-the-moment memes and cultural zeitgeists. An on-trend tone cultivates exclusivity. Selling clothes or trendy shoes? Bingo. Are you a lifestyle blogger convincing readers you’re in the know? On-trend is your #tonegoal. To achieve it, you create a feeling of the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria, and make readers crave an invite to pull up a chair. My favorite example is Thinx, the purveyor of period underwear that’s making it easier to be a woman – and to raise one. They’re talking about a pretty personal topic, and you can tell. It’s all girlfriend chatter, all the way. But I don’t classify it as “friendly,” because it’s also very, very hip and now. This makes sense if you think about what Thinx is selling: an entirely new way of thinking about a period. If you want people to start truly acting differently, you have to get the cool kids to act the way you want. And if you want the cool kids to act the way you want – well, write like Thinx. The site screams that young, hip, in-the-know women are ditching their grandmothers’ pads and not looking back, and it’ll make you want to do the same.

So, which is right for you? Don’t get swept up in the hottest blog language trends. Think about your business. If you’re trying to dispense financial advice, you want to impart that you’re adept at doing so. Opt for an expert tone. If you’re engaged in a more intimate function of your consumer’s life- – offering to cook them dinner or fit them with a bra — your optimal tone is friendly. Of course, these tones shade into one another. You may want to be both chummy and trustworthy, both expert and trendy, and that’s fine, if you do it well.

I can’t help you with your flabby arms. I don’t even particularly want to. But I’m happy to dish about tone over a dish of ice cream.