Create your Tone of Voice in 3 steps
A Tone of Voice is a crucial aspect of the branding of your business. Let’s illustrate with an example. Below, you’ll find two sentences that mean exactly the same thing, but the wording is different:
- The purpose of the writings below is to communicate to you the relevance of a Tone of Voice.
- Let’s have a look at why a Tone of Voice is so crucial.
The voice (what you say) is the same, but the tone (how you say it) clearly isn’t. The ‘how of the what’ or the Tone of Voice is part of the identity of your business and creates recognisability and customer trust. Like the American author Maya Angelou once said: “People don't always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel." Words of wisdom!
The key question is: how do you determine your Tone of Voice? Let’s break this question down into three subquestions you should ask yourself:
- What is our brand identity?
- What is our target group?
- How do we want to come across?
Step 1: Determine your brand personality
To determine your message (voice) you should start from the core values of your business. What is the reason your organisation exists? What are your core values?
For instance, Tony Chocolonely knows exactly what they stand for (a world without illegal child labor or modern slavery) and what they wish to achieve (100% slave-free chocolate): Tony Chocolonely is ‘crazy about chocolate, serious about people’. So, their core value is ‘fair’. They make this clear through direct communication: they make bold statements and are not afraid to use harsh words. That’s obvious when you look at their Instagram posts: ‘things need to change drastically’, ‘ready for the bitter truth’, ‘we need to talk about Kweku’ ...
Another fine example is Nike. Their core value is ‘inclusive’. They believe anyone can engage in sports and that message is clearly reflected in their communication: their copy is appealing and to the point.
So, start by listing the core values of your organisation. What does your organisation truly stand for, what are your goals and how will you communicate them to the public?
Step 2: Define your target group
To define your target group, it’s a good idea to create a few personas that represent that target group. A persona embodies your entire target group and gives you a better idea who exactly you should be aiming for. You know what their interests, needs, wishes ... are and that makes communication so much easier.
Then there is the art of appealing to your target group. Give them a compliment, key into their feelings ... It’s like Coolblue says: ‘anything for a smile’. Thinking outside-in is crucial in determining your Tone of Voice. As we emphasised in the 15th edition of our trend report, you should always start from the standpoint of the end user. If not, you will lose in the long run ... It’s not until you look at your own brand through their eyes that you will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your communication.
An example ...
Jupiler presents itself as the beer for real men and is very adept at continually keying into that image. When the Red Flames played in 2019, they used the slogan ‘Come and stand behind the Red Flames as one tomorrow’.
In addition, there’s also a difference in communication per channel. On Facebook, you use a different style of communication than on LinkedIn. Facebook primarily belongs to the private atmosphere, whereas LinkedIn is more often used in a professional context.
Step 3: Decide how you wish to come across
Establishing a Tone of Voice involves making certain crucial decisions. It’s important to look at the way you’re communicating now and decide how you would like to communicate in the future. Completing this exercise will make it easier to settle on a Tone of Voice. For instance, do you want to adopt a formal or informal style of communication?
- Formal means professional, it commands respect and projects quality, but it is also stiff and distant and implies a lack of personality.
- Informal is accessible, personal, young and dynamic, but it is also risky in certain situations. In a B2B context, it could create the impression that the company you are communicating to lacks professionalism.
A good example is the highly accessible way in which the Flemish government communicated about the coronavirus. In this blog post by Var, you can listen to the radio spot of the Flemish government in which radio host Siska Schoeters calls on the public to save lives by checking checking checking.
Determine how you wish to communicate and anchor this in a Brand Personality Spectrum. By making decisions and communicating them internally, everyone will know what tone to adopt when communicating on behalf of the organisation.
Are you rather ‘fun’ than ‘serious’? Then spice up your social media posts with humor. Translation agency Blue Lines does an excellent job of this on their social media.
Finally, we have a few best practices that will come in handy in determining your Tone of Voice, namely:
- Think about your use of ‘you’ as a formal or informal pronoun in foreign languages. Nowadays, more and more organisations use the informal Dutch pronoun ‘je’. In Dutch, the formal use of you (‘u’ in Dutch) creates a certain distance. It can certainly still be used in official documents, but in business or government communication the informal use of you (‘je’ in Dutch) is to be preferred. Whichever you choose, be consistent. If you use ‘je’ on one page, then you should use it on every page. (In French, German and Spanish the formal pronoun is standard).
- Use active instead of passive language. People react more favorably to active language. Let’s revisit our Tony Chocolonely example to illustrate this:
- Active: Be part of the sweet solution.
- Passive: Also become part of the sweet solution.
- Mind your spelling. Winning someone’s trust is not easy. Especially when you’re a company. If you’re not 100% sure about your copy, then have it checked. For Dutch, a helpful tool is Schrijfassistent (literally: Writing Assistant), developed by the Institute for Living Languages (ILT) of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in conjunction with public service broadcaster VRT and De Standaard newspaper.
- Speak the language of your target group. Don’t oversimplify your communication, but be sure to keep it accessible. Only use jargon when it is self-evident to your target group. Striking the right balance is not easy, but practice makes perfect.
- Use humor that fits your brand. As a business, you shouldn’t be afraid to crack the occasional joke. After all, humor acts as social glue. Just make sure it suits your Tone of Voice. Bol.com can definitely get away with a provocative joke, but people would be less appreciative if the Belgian railways SNCB did the same. Having doubts about what is acceptable and what isn’t? A safe play on words can always put a smile on people’s faces. But don’t forget to do your research when writing about a more sensitive topic. Talk to someone who is well versed in your chosen subject, so you know what you’re talking about.
- Mind your punctuation.
- A comma can definitely bring added value to your text. When used correctly a comma brings pause where needed, and therefore adds that little bit of extra information.
- Go easy on the exclamation marks. On occasion, you may catch yourself being too generous with the use of exclamation marks. We understand you want to show enthusiasm but, in this case, less really is more.
- Asking questions in your copy works well (particularly on social media) to invite interaction. For instance, with our blog post ‘Ethics is not at odds with business’, you could easily ask ‘Do you agree?’.
- Take account of different channels. As mentioned above, you will rarely communicate in the same way on different channels. A few rules of thumb:
Once you’ve settled on a Tone of Voice, you must write out your guidelines in a brand book and make it available to all employees. Describe your Tone of Voice by using instructive terms such as ‘informal’, ‘activating’ or ‘clear’ and add transparent instructions of what to avoid: informal, but not too jovial. This will help your colleagues find that balance faster while making your Tone of Voice more tangible. When applied correctly by every member of the organisation, your Tone of Voice will bring consistency and therefore recognisability.
Would you like to be sure you’ve adopted the right Tone of Voice? We’re happy to lend a hand: