Can you imagine if people spoke to you in real life in the same manner and style they write web articles or emails?
Near the start of a conversation, someone would suddenly come out with, “Without further ado, let’s dive into our roundup of the top ten marketing tips of 2018”. Or just appear out of nowhere and ejaculate, “Hi there Bill, wouldn’t it be nice to double your income and triple your happiness?”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy writing authentic, consistent, and natural-sounding copy for the web. The impression of typing into a lifeless void is enough to make anyone forget they’re speaking to actual human beings.
But instead of taking this into account and putting the steps in place to manage it, most businesses instead fall into speaking in cliches or adopting artificial voices based on outdated copywriting guidelines and decades of aggressive business-consumer direct marketing tactics.
The result is what you’d expect: a salesy, artificial and wildly fluctuating voice that seems to always be a little bit out of touch with reality and the person on the other side of the screen.
The way businesses and brands help to prevent themselves falling into this pit is by creating tone and voice documentation. With such content guidelines in place, they can then make sure they have a natural, consistent voice and an appropriate tone across all their written copy — including websites, social media campaigns, email newsletters, and offline marketing.
If your brand was a person, who would it be?
In order to have a voice, you first need to be human. So before anything else, your voice guidelines should be shaped around being natural and conversational, as opposed to fabricated and robotic.
To help remind you to speak like a human, it helps to break down the illusion that you’re just typing words into a screen and make it seem more like what it is — like you’re having a chat with a friend or a coffee with a business partner. You can do this by making user personas.
User personas are in-depth descriptions of a typical set of customers in your audience. Effective ones tell you everything about a particular user group, from their age and income to their proudest moments and most embarrassing flaws.
Once you know who it is you’re actually talking to, you can then focus on the particular aspects of your brand’s voice.
Your voice is the equivalent of a person’s demeanour and values — i.e. all the stuff that makes you like someone and want to hang around with them.
For instance, as you read this, do you picture me standing with one foot out the door and quickly pushing the words through clenched teeth? Or am I casually leaning against a wall and treating you like we’re old friends or, at least, familiar acquaintances?
When talking to your audience online, you obviously don’t have a physical body to support your voice. And so people get an idea of your demeanour and values in the way in which you approach topics. For example, what angle you take, what details you focus on, your tendencies to be more positive than negative, or open or closed, and the standards and morals you uphold throughout.
You can get a clearer idea of your voice, then, by pinning down what you are by comparing it against what you’re not. For example, at Connected, the voice guidelines state things like, be informational but not boring, educational but not bossy, funny but not silly, and controversial but not contentious.
It’s not what you say, but how you say it
Fifty-five percent of communication is non-verbal — body language, eye contact, gestures, etc. — and only seven percent is verbal — the actual words you speak. The leftover thirty-eight percent, then, comes across in your tone of voice.
Your brand’s tone of voice, if you think about me again as being an actual person speaking to you, is how my voice sounds, including its volume, pitch, tempo, and inflections.
Whereas your brand may have a consistent voice throughout all your content marketing efforts, your tone can be continually changing according to things like the subject matter, who you’re talking to, and the context or situation in which you’re talking in.
For instance, am I softly speaking these words to you at a low volume and slow tempo as if telling a story, or am I stating them with a solid pitch and rhythmic tempo, at an authoritative but not overbearing volume?
Your content’s tone is all about not what you say, but how you say it. It’s about emotion and how you make your audience feel during and long after they’ve left you. And as most of the decisions we make on the web are driven by emotions, getting into the reader’s head and understanding their state of mind in any given moment can make all the difference.
Assessing what tone to use can be as simple as asking, before producing and publishing any piece of content, what is the reader’s most prominent emotion or feeling right now? Are they curious, confused, anxious, excitable, tired, unfulfilled, hungry, annoyed, fed up, or maybe they don’t know?
A lot of readers fit into all these categories most of the time — after all, like us, they’re only human. So if you ever get stuck on what tone to use, or producing your tone and voice guidelines in general, remember that all these years you’ve managed to do it in person, and you never received a manual for that.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.