Your brand voice influences the feelings people have about your organization, and can be one of the most powerful ways you have to build trust and loyalty. But it’s also the one thing you can’t fake — it has to be authentic.
Tiffani Jones-Brown knows this well. As a writer and content strategist at Pinterest, she’s leading the charge to define the popular social network’s consistent voice. In her Confab 2013 presentation “Voice Lessons,” she shared a number of her learnings from this work:
Voice has to be a mix of “strategery” and writing. The tough thing about voice is that it has to be abstract enough to be applicable across channels and uses. A lot of voice work in companies focuses on the tactics — it’s more about style guides and writing usage, and less about the overall feeling or vibe. Your voice is your personality and the vibe or energy that you give off as a company.
Voice is about feeling. “We’re in the feeling business,” Tiffani said. Everything we do gives people feelings, and the way people “hear” your voice is based on the experiences they have with your brand over time.
Voice resonates in everything you do. It’s not just about the words you use in your marketing brochures, or the way your sales associates speak. Your voice is a combination of everything — not just how you talk, but how you act as well. It is an integral part of your brand andyour company values.
Your voice has power. Saying the right thing to the right people at the right time can really contribute to your bottom line, Tiffani says. Your voice helps people trust you and feel like you’re a safe and preferred organization to work with.
You can’t overdub your voice. Deciding what your voice needs to be and trying to talk in that way never works — your voice has to be a true reflection of who your organization is. Trying to layer on a voice that isn’t authentic will fail, and make people trust you even less.
So, how do you find your voice?
Figuring out your company’s true voice requires a deep look inside your company or organization, Tiffani says. Everyone in the organization owns the voice, and there are a lot of things going on under the surface of the company that can impact how the brand comes across. A few tips she offers:
- Approach your quest for voice by being an ethnographer. Observe people and how they act and talk. Ask a lot of questions. “Figure out what the place is from the inside out.”
- Talk to users or customers about their experience with your products or services. Listen to the stories they tell, and the words or inflections they use when talking about how they interact with your brand. Why do they use your product? What do they feel about it?
- Study your founders. Who are they? How do they talk about the company and the brand? What voice or language do they use? What is their “origin story,” or the legacy that you want to retain in the brand voice.
Putting your voice to work
Once you’ve defined your voice, it’s the content strategists’ and writers’ job to make case-by-case decisions on how it comes to life.
For example, Tiffani described a new feature at Pinterest: “Secret Boards.” These private pin boards were inspired by many user requests. When deciding what to call them, the Pinterest team consulted their voice attributes of warm, helpful, honest and direct. “Secret Boards” sounded friendlier and warmer than “Private Boards,” more personal and confidential, and did not have the scary privacy implications that could turn people off. She also describes how the company named their usage guidelines “Pinning etiquette,” a warmer and gentler way of positioning rules and regulations.
Tiffani recommends that content professionals:
Become the voice. Speak and act the way you write. It’s not just enough to write down the attributes and pin them to the wall — act the part.
Write in the voice. If you “strategize” the voice, be able to write in it yourself. Set the example for other writers.
Build a wee army. Tap other people throughout your organization who create content as allies in defining the voice. They can be community managers, service reps, translators or writers. Get them to understand the voice as well as you, and empower them to point out when the voice is wrong.
Draw boundaries. Use “this, not that” lists to set boundaries and more precisely define the voice. For example: “warm but not gushing, helpful but not cloying, honest but not confessional” are attributes on Pinterest’s list.
Keep evolving. Even though the voice attributes won’t always change, there might need to constantly probe your voice and keep thinking about it, Tiffani says. “It’s an ongoing project that evolves with your business.”