Tone of voice: an essential guide

What is tone of voice?

In corporate communications, tone of voice (ToV) refers to how companies use written and spoken words to express their brand identity and personality.

Sounds quite vague, uh? And yet, tone of voice is concrete aspect of communication. And we deal with it every day.

Let’s see how it works with a simple example. Consider the fictional e-mails below:

  1. “Could you please send me the Rossi file as discussed last week?”
  2. “I’m still waiting for the Rossi file”

The information conveyed by both messages is: the client is waiting for you to send a document. However, the tone is quite different – and reflects a difference in the emotional content of the e-mail.

The fictional author of message #2 sounds irritated. His request is implicit yet dictatorial. When reading such an email, you could easily feel the bitter aftertaste of a reprimand.

As you can see, tone of voice affects how we perceive and decode communications that reach our eyes and ears. It also has an impact on how we react to such messages. Reading e-mail #2 will likely prompt us to take immediate action and send the Rossi file asap, because the message conveys a higher sense of urgency.

Tone of voice is about relationships

The realm of human interactions is complex and fascinating. Looks, attitude, behaviours, language: all of these elements provide insights on the people we interact with. They tell us more about their values, goals, points of view, emotions.

Over a conversation, we elaborate the hints to grasp the essence of their personality. As a result, we might empathise (or not) with our counterpart. And empathy plays a huge role in determining whether we’ll be inspired to keep the conversation going.

When the counterpart is a brand, it all gets more complicated.

Whether it’s content marketing or an open letter to stakeholders, we do not interact with a flesh-and-blood entity. Which is why tone of voice (alongside visual identity elements) is key to share factual information as well as hints about the personality and unique standpoint of the brand, i.e. the differentiating elements of your company.

In pragmatics – a branch of linguistics that studies the relationship between context and meaning -, communication is commonly described as a combination of levels. According to the five axioms of communication formulated by Paul Watzlawick, “every communication has a content and relationship aspect”.

The content level is about what we communicate: what information do I need to share? The relationship level is instead about how we communicate – and our chosen approach clarifies the kind of relationship we want to develop with our counterpart.

Let’s go back to our fictional e-mails:

  1. “Could you please send me the Rossi file as discussed last week?”
  2. “I’m still waiting for the Rossi file”

E-mail #1 reveals a desire for a collaboration-oriented relationship. E-mail #2, on the other hand, hints at an attempt to establish a power-based relationship.

Considering this, tone of voice connotes as the relationship aspect of corporate communications.

When pinpointing a tone of voice, brands decide on their approach to relationships with customers and prospects. Do they want to be perceived as a mentor, a partner in crime, a generous fairy that comes to the rescue?

An appropriate tone of voice:

  • Fosters trust and encourages interactions
  • Humanises and differentiates a brand
  • Enhances outreach and brand perception.

How to define a brand’s ToV?

Defining a brand’s tone of voice takes time, skills and patience. Downloading a template or copying tone descriptors from ToV manuals you can find online won’t yield meaningful results.

Tone of voice shines through all business communications, from internal memos up to marketing campaigns. The intensity of individual tone elements might vary based on the context and occasions. Nevertheless, your ToV shall always come across as personal, coherent, appropriate and recognisable.

Based on your tone of voice, prospects elaborate a perception of the kind of customer experience you can offer – i.e. what does “working with you” means to them. If your outreach and marketing campaigns are based on a “fake” tone of voice, what could possibly happen when showing your true colours to your prospects?

Regardless of “the colour”, you would lose some of the trust earned that far. Your brand would come across as counterfeit (even though that might not be the case) … and you might even sabotage your sales process.

That’s why meaningful tone of voice analysis starts with defining the personality and core values of your brand. What inspired you to realize your business idea? What do you stand for and how this shines through your unique way of “doing business”? How are you achieving your goals, and how are you helping clients achieve theirs?

As you know, effective communication requires people (or brands) to consider the background and circumstances of their discussion partners. Which is exactly why a successful tone of voice is also based on your target audience.

Who are your ideal clients? What language and communication codes do they use? What’s important to them? Observing and listening to your audience will help you identify points of contact, discussion topics and “the right words” that bring your worlds closer together.

You’ll also need to monitor your competitors to find a unique angle that will differentiate your brand. If your message sounds the same as your competition, it gets lost in background noise.

Tone of voice: more than words

How does tone of voice translates in practice? Choosing “the right words”, obviously – but there’s a lot more to it. Tone of voice is all about mixing rhythm, sound, imagery and meanings to distil a powerful potion.

Syntax and punctuation frame your message, imbuing words and concepts with meaning, sense and structure. Symbolic language, rhetoric devices, slang and jargon make your ToV more vivid. Humour, sensory language and the mood of your message add the finishing touch.

The primary dimensions of tone of voice

Tone of voice is usually expressed as a list of adjectives which reflect the words we would use to describe the personality of an individual.

In 2016, Nielsen Norman Group published the results of a study on tone of voice in web copywriting, illustrating a practical tool they devised to distil a simple ToV profile based on four primary dimensions – i.e. “nuance scales” that define the general traits of your communications.

The four dimensions identified by Nielsen are:

  • Funny VS serious
  • Formal VS casual
  • Respectful VS irreverent
  • Enthusiastic VS matter-of-fact.

To create a base ToV profile for your brand, you need to understand where your tone of voice would fall on each nuance scale.

To clarify: your company may opt for a serious yet informal tone, sprinkled with enthusiasm and strictly respectful. This provides valuable insights on the style of your future communications, as the combination of your favourite features would naturally exclude specific nuances (e.g. sarcastic, dramatic, provocative) whilst prompting at more appropriate options (e.g. expert, friendly, passionate).

With your basic ToV profile in mind, you can detail and refine the intensity, relevance and influence of each dimension until you’re happy with your unique set of tone of voice descriptors.

Want to have a look at frequent tone of voice descriptors for inspiration?
Said and done.

tone of voice adjectives

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