1st January 2019

Tone of voice – are you in tune or a little flat?

If you’ve ever watched ‘The Voice’ you’ll know that the contestants have to work pretty hard to get all three judges to turn their chairs around. Each needs to use his or her voice to attract attention before their moment is over.

It’s about offering something unique – something that piques the interest. It invites an obvious comparison to your company’s tone of voice, because that’s all about grabbing attention quickly and offering something different, right?

Well, yes and no. That’s part of it, but your company’s tone of voice goes much deeper than shouting and pointing. Let’s look at what it is and what it’s really for.

Understanding tone of voice

The terms ‘tone of voice’ and ‘TOV’ are thrown around a lot, but what do they really mean? Put simply, it’s the writing style you choose to express your professional knowledge and expertise to your audience.

That might be conversational, informal or even chatty, or at the other end of the spectrum it might be authoritative, serious and formal. The important thing is that it’s your company’s ‘voice’ – it’s how you sound to customers, based on the language you choose.

Tone and trustworthiness

As professionals, we know we’ll do a great job for our clients. We have their best interests at heart and we can show them as soon as we meet them. The problem is that before we get that opportunity, we often need to communicate in writing. Creating a tone of voice that’s recognisably your own helps to build familiarity and consistency, which are key steps along the way to the really crucial one – trust.

I still hear comments about language being ‘cosmetic’ or something that ‘goes in at the end’, but our choice of language does much more than just filling in the lorem ipsum. This Nielsen Norman study assessed a range of invented brands and found “different tones of voice on a website have measurable impacts on perceptions of a brand’s friendliness, trustworthiness, and desirability”. Importantly, trustworthiness is the biggest factor in making a product or service desirable and “tone of voice is a powerful tool for influencing that perception of trustworthiness”.

Trust keeps people coming back

Contestants on ‘The Voice’ have a minute to make it, but we have businesses to build and maintain. Getting a sale is one thing, but we want customers to keep coming back to us – to make us a part of their lives. Building trust also has the added value of making customers more likely to recommend us to friends. Word of mouth is still very powerful – some would say it’s still the best way to get business.

This report found that when people have a particularly good experience with a brand, by far the people they’re most likely to tell are friends and family. It then looked into whose influence made people more likely to choose a brand and the biggest category by far was… you guessed it… friends and family.

Making ourselves clear

Customers will thank us for making their lives easier by explaining things in a way that makes them easy to grasp immediately. Being clear in what we say is also a great example of ‘show, don’t tell’. We can spend an eternity telling people we’re ‘transparent’ (show me a financial brand that doesn’t include this in its values) but by giving them clear, concise and accurate information, we can show them we’re transparent without having to labour the point.

There’s often a concern that customers might feel patronised by language that’s pitched at a level everyone can grasp. But that’s no excuse for using unnecessarily complex language to show just how well we know our subject. Of course there are times when technical language is required – sometimes that’s just what things are called. But if we forget that we’re writing for them, not us, we miss the point of good writing.

The most expert grasp of a subject is of no use to a reader if they can’t get through it. Don’t make your customers work harder than they need to. Really good writing gives answers… it’s not ‘here’s everything we know’, it’s ‘here’s what you wanted to know’.

So who are you?

How do you settle on your tone of voice? Well, first things first, do your customers know who you are? Come to think of it, do you? It’s surprisingly easy to confuse WHO you are with WHAT you are.

Being ‘a client-focussed advisor committed to helping you reach your goals’ is an example of ‘what you are’. The ‘who you are’ part is concerned with the experience your customers can expect from you – your personality, rather than your products.

The other important point is context. You need to know your customers and your industry. Are you fanning a desire, or serving a need? Are you selling excitement or peace of mind? The Nielsen Norman study found casual, conversational and enthusiastic tones tend to work better, but there’s an important caveat – your tone has to suit your business.

Innocent, the smoothie company, has become the go-to example for a friendly, irreverent tone. But Nielsen Norman found companies that take care of money matters are generally expected to keep it a bit more serious. Even Nutmeg and Monzo, both operating at the casual end of tone in finance, keep it formal without being flippant.

Tips for finding your voice

Your tone of voice is the closest your company will come to being a person, so what kind of person is it? Let’s wrap up with some tips to help you find out.

1. Values – we all have company values, but how often do we think about how they relate to the customer? A good way to get this shift of focus started is to write about ‘you’ instead of ‘we’. Sure we’re transparent, open and respectful, but the customer might well be looking for competent, friendly and reliable. Who we think we are shouldn’t function in a vacuum away from who our customers think we are.

2. The feels – again, we need to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. Yes, they want to be thrilled, intrigued and rewarded, but they also want security, reassurance and peace of mind. For every ‘Wow that’s amazing!’ there’s a ‘What if I need help?’. How do you want your customers to feel after an exchange with you?

3. Think about what you’re selling – are you in the aspirational or functional space? Realistically you’ll be somewhere in between, but it’s important to get the balance right. If what you do is something people need reassurance on in a hurry, there’s no point in lots of scene setting.

4. Test – it’s not always possible, but if you have the facilities and budget, think about carrying out some A/B testing with customers. There’s no better acid test than watching a confused face muddle through what you’ve written, or seeing the light of realisation dawn when the language is doing its job well.

5. Look at the competition – for two reasons. One, to take a temperature check of how similar businesses are addressing customers, and two, to work out what makes you different.

6. Stick to it – once your tone of voice is in place, stick to it. In the same way that bashing our 2,000 sit-ups in an evening won’t get you fit, an occasional language push won’t cut it. It’s something you build steadily and consistently. In the end, we’re after trust, and that’s something no amount of shouting and pointing will achieve. Trust is earned, not demanded.