Our Head of Copy Clive Weatherley explores the need for every brand to have a well-researched and clearly defined tone of voice.
Remember ‘business English’? It was a kind of meta-language that was taught at secretarial and business schools, and used phrases such as ‘Further to our communication of…’ and ‘Please be advised that…’. You still come across it occasionally, although the words ‘ult’ for ‘last month’ and ‘inst’ for ‘this month’ are surely now extinct.
However dated it sounds, it does represent an attempt to separate two separate arenas, formal and informal life, and define suitable language for each. It was the beginning of a great idea but just that – thankfully we’ve come a long way from then and developed that idea beyond recognition. Our attitude towards language in commerce is now highly sophisticated, and we understand the myriad possibilities that paying great attention to ‘tone of voice’ can bring.
But what do we mean by ‘tone of voice’? Well, just as in human terms a person’s tone of voice (TOV) is a key element of that person’s personality, then the same is true of an organisation’s brand. And just as strangers can warm to you due to your TOV alone, so customers can be better disposed to an unknown brand when it gets the tone right.
TOV breaks down into so many parts, and I’ll only scratch the surface here. Let’s start with vocabulary. Making lists of words you like as a company and words you don’t is a great exercise, and is just part of the dedicated in-depth brand work we conduct as part of our transformation process. Favourite words are likely to express positivity; great service; and energy. On the naughty list will probably be dull and stuffy clichés; jargon that means nothing to customers; and filler phrases that are a hangover from my first paragraph. It’s worth noting here that a TOV exercise never attempts to create robots all speaking the same script: far from it. From a vocab point of view, it’s about remembering and using the good words and banning the bad.
Written style is so important – especially now when people tend to want to read as little copy as possible. So it needs to be clear and simple: short sentences, uncomplicated syntax, a friendly approach. Tricks here include using contractions (‘it’s’ for ‘it has’, ‘you’re’ for ‘you are’); and using the active voice rather than the passive. And a generous sprinkling of the favourite words mentioned above is always a good idea.
Companies are often surprised when they’re asked to think about how many ways they communicate both internally and externally – from letters and emails to customers, to internal memos and briefings, to out of office replies and on-hold phone messages. Having a clearly defined TOV means that all these communications are consistent and reflect a single positive personality, though the ‘volume’ can be turned up or down.
Mobas always considers tone of voice when developing and transforming brands, and the results are often an eye-opener for clients. If it weren’t a cliché of outmoded business English I might well say ‘If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to contact us’…