Tone of voice

Your brand’s tone of voice is as important to get right as the logo or look and feel – so you need to be able to spot when it’s going wrong.

Like the other elements that make up your brand, your tone of voice needs to be distinct and recognisable, and consistent throughout your audience’s interactions with your brand.

Every brand’s tone of voice is different. And it should be flexible; it would be weird if a product launch video and a customer bill struck exactly the same tone. So what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to tone of voice depends heavily on the brand and the situation.

But there are also some common pitfalls that all brands should always try to avoid…

1. Blame-proof grammar

The passive voice is when you say “The door was opened”, instead of the active “Alex opened the door”. It’s a bit of grammar that can easily be abused to avoid taking responsibility for something.

You often see it in apologies for corporate misbehaviour (“Mistakes were made…”) and communications that demand something of the audience (“Members are requested…”). It reads strongly as an attempt to downplay the brand’s involvement in the events and weasel out of any blame or consequences. Not an impression you want your audience to have of your brand.

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you the passive voice is always wrong. There are absolutely cases where it’s the best tool for the job. But it makes a flimsy shield. In both apologies and requests, a direct approach is more effective.

It would be weird if a product launch video and a customer bill struck exactly the same tone

2. Jargon and made-up words

Making up words is an easy way to make your products and services sound unique (and easier to google). But a made-up word is a hurdle in your audience’s path; you have to explain it before anyone can fully understand what you’re offering. That’s extra work for you and for your audience. Ask yourself if you could use a word they already understand instead, and get to the point more quickly.

Using jargon – words and phrases with specific meanings in your organisation or industry – is an even easier trap to fall into. When you use it every day, you can forget your audience might not – and substituting simpler terms can feel like dumbing things down.

But research shows that even the most sophisticated readers actually prefer simpler, plainer language. Don’t make things hard for your audience by making them translate your content. They’ll reward you by engaging more readily.

3. Style over substance

Yes, your brand’s tone of voice should be distinct and recognisable … but it’s possible to take distinctiveness too far.

Can you think of a brand you find irritating? That’s a sign that its voice is taking priority over its message. You can tell it’s working hard to get your attention, but what it’s actually trying to tell you is obscured by overly stylised language. Sometimes it’s matey familiarity, sometimes shocking impact, sometimes smarmy superiority.

Brands can be familiar, impactful or sophisticated, of course. The issue is that when the message takes a back seat to the personality, the audience can’t help but get frustrated.

More brands fall into these pitfalls than you might think – so learn to spot them, and you’ll be well on the way to developing a tone of voice your audience will want to engage with – and even be inspired by.