tone of voice isn’t working

Why tone of voice isn’t working and everyone’s brand language sounds the same.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on written tone of voice recently.  It’s often been with clients who already have an official brand tone in place.  They usually have a hefty, written tone of voice guide too – and most of them have even done a bit of training.  The problem is, their customer services teams are really struggling to make sense of what tone of voice is and how to use it in their everyday, practical writing. Instead, they’re slipping into that slightly defensive, semi-formal, distant tone that’s familiar to anyone who’s worked in customer experience.

There seem to be three main problems:

– Everyone’s tone of voice is the same

– There’s a muddle between tone of voice and basic, good writing style

– Customer-facing teams struggle to use written tone of voice practically

Everyone sounds the same

Nearly a quarter of brands are using exactly the same tone of voice characteristics.  

We looked at fifty publicly-available brand tone documents from organisations including  businesses, government departments and universities. We found that nearly a quarter were using exactly the same terms to describe their brand tone of voice.

The Top Five most popular brand tone attributes were:

22% – Positive

18% – Inspiring

18% – Confident

14% – Straightforward

14% – Friendly

% = brands claiming this attribute

So much for brand tone promoting difference and uniqueness.

Muddling brand tone and basic good writing style

Brand tone guides have ended up being interchangeable. They all say that staff should write in ways like ‘positive’, ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’. Why? Because they’ve confused brand tone with basic good writing.

Our view is that if a brand tone characteristic would be ridiculous expressed as a negative, it’s probably not distinctive.  Instead, it’s just a table-stake for basic good writing. For example, let’s say your brand tone is ‘confident’, ‘warm’, ‘passionate’ and ‘knowledgeable’.  Those are just table-stakes – they state the obvious.  After all, it’s pretty damn unlikely that you’re going to be ‘introverted’, ‘cold’, ‘bored’ and ‘ignorant’.

If you really want to develop a unique brand tone that everyone can (and will) use, they need something different from a brand tone guide with some me-too adjectives. But as a start, basic good writing style is a good place to aim for to cut through the lumpy, inward-facing, jargon-ridden material some businesses produce.

So, by all means talk about positive attributes.  They’re a useful foundation.  But they’re not a basis for brand tone.

Using tone of voice practically

You’d think with pages of guidance and brand tone booklets, getting customer teams to use tone of voice effectively would be a cinch. Not in our experience. It’s not lack of will – they want to do it. It’s not lack of knowledge – most people know, broadly, what the brand tone is. They just don’t know how to use it practically. And often, it’s because they’ve simply been dumped with it and no-one’s thought about how they can actually translate it to the customer conversations and communications they have.

Imagine. You need to write to a policyholder to explain that you’re declining the claim they’ve made on their deceased partner’s life assurance policy. Good luck with trying to be ‘positive’ and ‘inspiring’. This is where training, coaching and culture are vital. We’ve nearly always spent more time on those than producing booklets.

We’ve been using a set of specific tools to make sure that customer teams absolutely ‘get’, understand and can use their brand tone in everything they write. From emails to standard paragraphs to social media posts to live chat.

The future of tone of voice

Walk into most offices – even customer services departments – and all you’ll hear is the tap of keys and the odd phonecall. We’re communicating with customers in writing more often than any other medium. And as customers interact with businesses more and more through writing – social media, SMS, live chat and email – getting tone of voice consistent and running right through the organisation is vital.

After all, it looks daft when a brand that claims to be one thing sounds like another when it writes to its customers.

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