Voice and tone: the ambiguous and misunderstood duo

Voice and tone: the ambiguous and misunderstood duo

You hear people talk about “tone and voice” as inseparable concepts: “We really need to define the company’s tone and voice.” I did this too, for many years, throwing them around as a package deal (“tone ‘n’ voice”) without stopping to truly understand the difference.

But there is a difference — albeit an ambiguous one. Ultimately I realized that when I was addressing tone ‘n’ voice in style guides, I was really just defining tone. Voice is part of a much larger picture that it’s more difficult to define and control for brands.

You have brand personality, the overarching set of traits that define a customer’s entire experience with a brand: in a store, on the phone, in written and designed materials. The brand personality helps to guide design of the brand identity as well as development of the brand voice: how the brand is personified in media. Many people define voice as the way consumers “hear” the brand.

My kingdom for a voice

Brand voice has much to do with point of view as it does with writing style. Giving a brand a voice means giving it a perspective — it becomes just as much about what you write as how you write it.

To illustrate this, think about a person in your life who has a really distinctive voice. For me, it’s an old friend whom I’ve known since childhood. The tenor and sound of her voice itself is truly unique — deep and commanding, it may fool you into believing you’re about to meet a 6’1” CEO who takes crap from exactly no one (so that you’re surprised when you instead meet a petite woman with twinkly eyes, a pixie haircut and an always-jolly demeanor).

Over time, as you get to know her, you start to become familiar with the way that she thinks and the way she expresses herself. You start to understand how she can take that powerful voice and turn it into something that charms the pants off everyone she meets — the funny and original phrases she uses, the sing-song way she greets perfect strangers and quips with them until they’re like her best friends. There’s so much more that goes into how she uses her voice than just the tonality of it: it’s where she’s from, who her family is, what she believes. All these things come together to create a character who is so memorable (and lovable) that she makes friends instantly wherever she goes.

Now think about a brand you really love, one with which you have an almost emotional connection. Apple is the obvious example most people will conjure; Target is another. We know their voices so well that when we see anything from them, we find ourselves chuckling internally — it’s like we’re in on the joke because they’re so familiar to us, we’ve started to get their humor and their point of view.

It all comes back to content strategy

This happens over time in part because we relate to the tone of voice they use in their communications. But primarily it happens because we sense that they’re authentic: they are consistent in the way they speak and in what they say. They are not a technology company that hired a highly paid copywriter to make them sound more conversational and approachable, while under the surface selling hard-to-use products backed by gobbledy-gook documentation. They’re the real deal: they know who they are and what they’re about, and they’re great at expressing that point of view in everything they communicate.

Your messages, the types of content you publish, the channels where you publish it (because the medium is the message, right?) — all of these factors, together with the tonality you use, build your unique brand voice over time. Content strategy shapes your voice. It’s not something that can change overnight: it’s something that you own and nurture over time, with a solid strategy behind it.

Tonality: writing the voice

So what then is tonality? We still work hard to define your tone as part of a content strategy, because it’s such a critical part of how customers “hear” and experience your brand. Tone of voice, or tonality, is the tactical way we bring a voice to life in copywriting: the words, tense person we choose and the way we structure our sentences. Tone of voice is comprised of the rules that direct a copywriter to write copy like this:

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versus this:

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When putting together a content strategy, we work to define these attributes as specifically, even as quantifiably, as possible:

Tonal Quality  Attributes
Confident Active voice
Shorter sentences
Use of imperatives and more direct language in calls to action
Friendly with a Touch of Southern Hospitality Second person (“you”)
Conversational
Empathetic and familiar (we understand what you are looking for)
Intelligent Yet Emotional Descriptive language
Speaking to emotional and sensory needs
Straightforward and unembellished

 

There’s the added complication that tonality may change depending on the type of content you’re creating — just as my dear friend’s tone is different when she’s talking to a girlfriend over drinks than when she’s on the phone with a new customer. A strong brand voice, however, maintains its same personality and tonal qualities even if there are slight variations: think about the ways Apple’s product manuals are written, and how similar they sound to Apple signage or TV ads.

So while we need to stop thinking of voice ‘n’ tone as one and the same, we do need to think of them as a package deal. A defined and consistent tonality can start to impact the brand from day one. Over time, it’s the brand voice, conveyed through a well-executed content strategy, that lets your customers really get to know who you are — and love you for it.

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