This is the moment for tone of voice to break out of the marketing enclosure and into the mainstream. Tone of voice is not an esoteric marketing concept. It is a basic building block of doing business well and if we write at work we should be thinking about it. It’s that simple.
Better skills and clear guidance can help people who write in the work place to communicate in a style that supports the business.
Hooked in with branding
In the workplace everyone who writes needs to think about tone and they need some guidance at a corporate level that will help them to get it right for their business, their audience, their situation.
In the current business world it seems that tone of voice, if it gets talked about at all, tends to get rolled in with branding, often as a bit of an after-thought and sometimes by people whose main focus is visual identity.
Loads of people, loads of styles
Many people – writers in the workplace – do think about tone, but they do it in their own way. They are influenced by the way they were taught at school, their own personal style preferences and a raft of other things. There may be as many styles as there are people in your organisation. This can lead to a disintegration of the values at the heart of your brand. It could mean that core messages are lost and the business is less successful.
So it seems to me that writers – everyone who writes for business – need simple, practical guidelines that will help them write well, bringing together their own skills and interests and the culture of the organisation they work for. They need to be able to connect their writing skills with the purpose of the business. After all this is business writing – there is a commercial imperative.
To do this well, writers need advice on tone of voice. And they need ways of sharpening up their writing skills.
It’s easy to say, but is it easy to do?
Even where it is done well by the brand professionals tone of voice ideas rarely escape out into the real world. They tend to remain the responsibility of a few communications and marketing people. Part of the brand definition. Part of the core corporate communications. Part of the main marketing messages that have been carefully defined for a commercial organisation. But not necessarily part of the everyday thinking of people who write the vast mass of business content. Tip of the iceberg stuff.
Maybe that’s our fault. If it is, it is surely time for us to do something about it.
Why is tone of voice important?
How we write in a business setting is every bit as important as how we speak. So much communication in today’s world of work is done by email, that the tone we use will have an impact on how people see us. And when we write, the words alone do nearly all the work.
If we meet someone face to face, we know that body language is a huge part of the communication that takes place. The words we use are only part of the equation. They are also ephemeral – gone the moment we have spoken them (unless we are speaking to a camera of course).
By contrast, when we write we only have the words, and they can leave a lasting impression. They may be read again and again. They can influence, persuade and inspire. Or they can confuse, alienate, over-complicate and undermine.
So it makes sense for everybody who writes at work to know about and understand tone. To make the right impression.
Before tone comes skills
Many people who write at work do not see it as a core skill. Maybe they are engineers, accountants, technicians, sales people. They do not think of themselves primarily as writers and yet they write as part of their job. They write for colleagues, they write for clients and they write for customers. Their writing is part of the story of the organisation that they work for. It influences how people see the company. It is an expression of the company values.
People need to know how to write well so they have the skills to get the tone right.
- Do you know how to make your writing more or less formal?
- Do you know how to be clear and direct?
- Do you know what happens if you focus on verbs rather than nouns in your writing?
People do not necessarily need long style guides or in-depth skills training, but they do need the right advice.
Will a consistent tone make a difference?
Think about an old fashioned stick of blackpool rock – the ones that dentists want to ban from the face of the planet. One of the most intriguing things about the rock is the letters. As a child I loved seeing film footage of the rock factory – the giant letters being created from sugar, then stretched and stretched until they were tiny. But the lesson from the rock, from a branding perspective, is that it is words, carefully chosen, that are right at the centre of a business.
A consistent tone of voice can help to build a brand, define a business, establish a reputation.
If we are involved in branding we will talk about brand values, brand personality, brand messages, brand storytelling.
If we are involved in some other aspect of the business we are maybe less aware that the words we use will have an impact on how people see our business. By thinking about tone, and brushing up on these core writing skills, we can have a positive impact on the success of our business.
Consistency v. freedom
There’s one final thing to say, and that is about freedom. Writers are individuals and the best writers will always bring their own individual voice to a piece of writing. Brand values and corporate tone of voice can bring consistency but they can also stifle creativity. The best business writing leaves scope for the individual. People need freedom to write well. Defining tone of voice and providing skills training is not about removing that freedom, just about harnessing it enough that it contributes to the good of the business.
Hilary Phillips is a writing consultant with decades of experience of writing for organisations in Scotland. She can help organisations to explore their tone of voice and, better than that, apply it.