Speaking in a consistent voice is critical to gaining the trust of your audience. After all, we tend to distrust those we deem capricious or unreliable.
Beyond the simple act of establishing trust, however, your voice is also an opportunity to connect with your audience and convey deeper truths about your brand. You want to speak in a voice that is familiar, reinforces your values, sets you apart from the competition and conveys your archetypal identity.
This might sound like a tall order, but it’s really not. All it takes is the strategy you’ve already crafted and a hefty dose of empathy.
Writers have many tools at their disposal when defining a brand’s voice: rhythm, diction, style, poetic devices. All of these are important. One of the most fundamental building blocks of your voice, however, is tone.
The Dimensions of Tone
What is tone, though? Fortunately, some very smart folks have given us a very detailed answer. At its most basic level, tone reflects how you relate to your audience across four dimensions:
Humor — Are you funny or serious?
Formality — Are you casual or professional?
Enthusiasm — Are you excited or dead-pan?
Respect — Are you reverent or sassy?
You can define a specific range of tones that are appropriate for your brand. Case in point: Imagine you’re going to a friend’s birthday party and stop by the store to pick out a card. If you are a humorous person, you’ll probably choose a funny card, even though someone else attending the same party might have opted for something more restrained. Likewise, your friend will likely be able to guess which card came from whom.
Obviously, your tone will also vary from time to time, depending on the audience with whom you are speaking and the emotional state in which you find them at that moment. Continuing the example above: You probably wouldn’t use the same tone of voice to write both a birthday card for your friend and an obituary for your grandfather.
While your audience and your relationship with them is unlikely to change dramatically, you will meet these people in a variety of mental states. In fact, psychologists think humans could experience as many as 27 distinct emotions. Obviously, that is way too many for you to consider here, but you should be prepared for at least the most basic emotions. There are four of these, which I’ve listed below:
At every touch point, it’s helpful to ask yourself which of these emotions your audience is likely feeling before you decide what to say. Your overall tone of voice needs to be flexible enough to handle each encounter appropriately.
Let’s put this into practice by writing some sample copy. To make the process as simple as possible, focus on simple copy formats and scenarios (i.e. a transactional email subject line or a popup headline). In the exercise below, try to come up with at least one example for each of the four primary emotions.
For each sample, include a scenario describing the format and purpose of the communication (i.e. “free gift” or “credit card declined”), the corresponding emotional context (i.e. “happy” or “angry”), and a numeric score for each of the four tonal dimensions outlined above. These scores will be averaged together across all scenarios to calculate your brand’s overall tonal profile.
📝 Exercise 1
There are no rows in this table
Now that you’ve established a tonal baseline for your brand, it’s time to add some detail by creating a list of voice descriptors.
Where the tonal profile outlined above is supposed to provide a quantitative baseline for your brand’s voice, the voice descriptors are much more open-ended and qualitative. This is by design. The idea is to hone in on those qualities that are most strategically important to your specific brand context. What are the key notes that a copywriter must grasp and convey in order to identify your brand and set you apart?
When drafting these, try to identify descriptive words that convey a single idea of strategic importance. If you find yourself struggling to express your ideas with a single word, crack open a thesaurus and see if you can find a more precise synonym that conveys the central concept. If you still find yourself struggling, consider whether you might need to break the idea into two separate descriptors.
Try to come up with four or five descriptors in the exercise below. Don’t worry about the negative attributes right now. We’ll come back to that.
📝 Exercise 2
Tonal Risk Zones
Once you’ve identified the positive expression of each idea, it’s time to put some boundaries around them. After all, every idea exists on a continuum of meaning, and if you go too far in any one direction, you’re liable to overshoot your mark and veer off-brand.
Remember: The point of this framework is to bring meaning, structure and consistency to your brand-building efforts. The test of a good set of voice guidelines is whether you can hand them to a copywriter who has little or no prior acquaintance with your brand and end up with a finished product that approximates your brand’s voice.
Once we’ve settled on the positive attributes for your voice descriptors, consider where there might still be ambiguity that could lead a copywriter astray. For instance, you might want to project a voice that is "playful” (positive attribute) but not "snarky” (negative attribute).
But how do you settle on those boundaries? I find that it’s helpful, at this point, to visualize your brand’s tone as a Venn diagram, with each overlapping ellipse representing the positive attributes of the voice descriptors you selected.
Consider the example below, in keeping with our prior example.
The brand represented in this diagram wants to strike a voice that is kind, authentic, playful and celebratory. Each of these ideas is represented by a different-colored ellipse, and the sweet spot is right in the center, where all of these concepts converge.
Now, where is a copywriter most likely to go astray? It’s likely that any competent writer could strike a voice that embodies one of these descriptors, such as “playful” (1). However, there is a lot of territory here, and the risk they will miss the mark increases as they move inward toward the center.
After all, a voice that is playful and authentic (2) could come pretty close to hitting the mark for someone unfamiliar with this brand, but if we were to forget to be kind, we might veer into snarky territory and completely miss the target.
The point is this: when considering how to define the negative attributes of your voice descriptors, it helps to pay attention to these “tonal risk zones” where concepts overlap.