Are your voice guidelines six adjectives in your brand book, with a line of explanation for each? Or maybe you have none, because they’re all in one person’s head?
You can be honest. I’m not judging, and you’re not alone. In years of consulting, I can count on one hand (with fingers and a thumb to spare) the number of times I’ve worked with an organisation and been given a brilliant brand voice guide to work from.
Building a better brand voice is a big opportunity. It has a huge role to play in conveying what you stand for and communicating with your audience. It isn’t just about brand, marketing, or the emotional side of things. It’s also about the rational: if you’re trying to create a great product or service, voice has an impact on your user experience too.
It’s time to give your voice more consideration and your writers better guidance. In this post I’ll talk about what makes a good voice, and four facets to develop guidelines for your colleagues.
What you’re aiming for
Stop for a second and think of a brand with a memorable voice. Maybe you thought of Ikea, Volkswagen, Innocent, or maybe Slack or MailChimp.
What all these brands’ voices have in common is that they sit at the centre of this Venn diagram:
A brilliant brand voice is:
- Authentic: your voice needs to be authentic, which means it feels right coming from your brand. If you’re a hundred-year-old global banking corporation it’ll seem jarring if you start talking like a BuzzFeed listicle.
- Reflective: your voice needs to reflect your audience, the relationship they have with your brand, and what they want or need. This comes down to being appropriate to the user and situation.
- Differentiated: your voice should be distinctive (from your competitors in particular). It should help you stand out, rather than just melt into the crowd.
The four facets
So how do you develop a voice that’s authentic, reflective and differentiated? By focusing on getting a clear understanding of the four factors that make up your voice:
- Personality: the characteristics and qualities embodied.
- Tone: the feelings or moods conveyed.
- Rhythm: the pace and pattern.
- Vocabulary: the words used.
Personality is about getting to the heart of the kind of organisation you are. Personality should draw on the values, mission or purpose, and translate them into matching characteristics. It’s the overall impression that people should take away when they read or hear your voice. Authenticity and differentiation in your voice comes from having a solid sense of your personality.
Card sorting can help you work this out. Take a pack of cards with lots of different adjectives written on them, and sort and refine to find the qualities that best match your brand. Another idea is to look for characters — from real life or fiction — that have the qualities you want. Starting with character archetypes from literature (the hero, the everyman etc) or even Myers-Brigg personality types (I know they’re problematic) can give you a familiar idea to work from.
For example: BrewDog, an independent brewer with a single-minded mission to shake things up and make people passionate about craft beer again. Its distinctive personality is passionate, independent, punk, and a bit bombastic too. If this voice was a fictional character it’d be an antagonist, a rebel fighting on the side of chaotic good. The personality fits perfectly with the focus of the brand.
Or at the other end of the scale, GOV.UK, the UK government website that provides services and information for everyone in the UK. The personality is neutral and fair. If it was a character it might be lawful neutral, an impartial judge or oracle. Again, the personality is exactly what the brand requires.
To take these guidelines beyond just being a list of adjectives, try writing a character description to help people assume the personality when they write. Creating copy examples of the different personality traits in action also helps to make them tangible.
Tone is the feelings or moods that your voice can convey. To understand how tone works, imagine you’re a barista. Different customers might want an americano, a flat white, or a cappuccino; you’ll put the same coffee in everything, but you’ll change the amount of milk or water to make their specific order.
In this analogy personality is the coffee, tone is the milk and/or water. Personality is constant, but tone shifts in response to what the audience and situation demands. Tone is how you make your voice reflective. We all do this every day: we have one voice, but we’ll use it with different tones, depending on whether you’re talking to a friend about plans for the weekend, or answering questions in a job interview.
To set guidelines on tone, you need to look to your audience: who are they, what do they want or need from your brand? Once you have that, it’s a lot easier to know what tone to use to be empathetic to them.
It’s helpful to frame these as verbs in their -ing form; for example are you informing, warning, thanking, supporting, or championing your reader?
To turn this into a set of useful guidelines, describe who the tone is for, when you might use it, and the personality traits you need to turn up or down, or the techniques to use to achieve it. Again, provide examples of the tone in action.
The pace and pattern of your voice. Rhythm isn’t the easiest part of a voice to define, but has an important role to play. It’s often what elevates good writing to great writing.
In brand voice, your rhythm enhances your personality and your tone. If you want to make a statement or be punchy, short sentences are impactful. Alliteration can help bring out a sense of fun or playfulness. Varying your sentence length makes your voice more interesting.
Look at Oatly. It has ambitious plans for growth beyond vegan or lactose-intolerant customers, based on the belief that plant-based products are better for people and the environment. Oatly’s writing is offbeat, especially the posters and billboards. Line breaks fall in odd places, punctuation isn’t where you might expect it to be, the effect is arresting and challenging. You need to work a little harder to read it sometimes, and that makes you take a second to reflect on the underlying message.
To help people grasp this, you need to show different techniques in action and describe the impact they have. Giving recommendations about how they might help draw out different personality traits or enhance a tone would be useful too.
This is straightforward — it’s the words you use. Your vocabulary might be simple or complex, narrow or wide, plain or specialist. You might need to shift your vocabulary with your tone, depending on your audience.
For example in the charity sector, you might want to educate the public about a cause in everyday language to make it easy to understand. But you might need to convince an expert policy maker too, which requires specialist language to meet them at their level.
Vocabulary should factor in words or phrases that you’re making a stand on too. For example, when I was working on voice guidelines for a charity connected to fostering and adoption, I added a section to the guidelines on terminology to describe children and their birth and adoptive parents, to help writers find the right kind of words to use to reflect the organisation’s stance. In general, adding a guide to vocabulary that’s inclusive and empowering when it comes to gender, race, age, or disability is a good idea too.
Providing a list of words that aren’t ‘on brand’ and better alternatives can be a practical tool to help writers with vocabulary too.
- If you’re just giving your writers a list of six adjectives in the brand book, you’re missing a big opportunity to strengthen your brand, and improve your comms and user experience.
- A great band voice should be differentiated and reflect your audience but, above all, it should be authentic.
- To create your voice, make sure you think about the personality, tone, rhythm and vocabulary.
- Personality is a constant, but tone shifts for different audiences and situations
Want to discuss how I can help you find your brand voice? Get in touch