Everything starts with brand values. Whether it’s your company mission statement or your content’s tone of voice. It all comes back to brand values. 

So, to define your tone of voice, you first have to identify your brand values. But where should you start? We’ve created a five-step process to help you figure out your company’s core values. And (you’ve guessed it) lay the foundation for how you define your tone of voice. But more on that to come!

Step 1: Involve everyone affected

Defining or changing your tone of voice involves a lot of effort and commitment. It also isn’t a static process. Once you’ve captured your voice, you’ll have to maintain it and perhaps evolve it later on. 

So ideally, everyone affected by tone of voice should be involved from the beginning. Your customers see all your communications as parts of a whole, and so should you. Make clear from the start that you want to define your brand story, your core values, and your purpose.

The reason everyone has to be involved is that (almost) everyone writes content for your brand. From support articles and white papers, to marketing materials and website microcopy. Lots of your employees create content on behalf of your company, even though some of them aren’t part of a designated “content team.”

Developing a tone of voice can’t just be a box-ticking exercise. You need to anchor your tone in your brand. There has to be a commercial imperative, whether that’s increasing revenues or something else. And you have to know how you’ll measure success.

Liz Doig, Brand Language Consultant, Wordtree

Step 2: Establish where you’re at now

The next step is to get a sense of your current tone of voice: how it’s working for your business — or against it.

Maybe you’ve never thought about tone of voice before? In that case, your current tone of voice is probably one of two things. The standard issue tone used by most B2B companies: serious, heavy on features, sprinkled with a little jargon. Or, if you have lots of writers, it could be a patchwork of styles, with everyone doing what feels right. 

Here’s some ideas for how to get a quick feel for your tone of voice:

  • Read some content aloud from your website homepage and imagine the person who’s speaking. Are they boring or intriguing, vivacious, or uptight?
  • Brainstorm with your content writers. Write down three adjectives to describe your tone of voice. 
  • Compare your tone with your competitors. Take some content from each company and delete the brand names. Can’t guess who’s who? That’s a sign your tone isn’t making you stand out.
  • Ask your customers. Based on emails, social media, and your website, how would they describe you? This also shows if you have a consistent tone.
  • Look at your metrics. High bounce rates, low time on site, and click-through rates are all clues your tone needs improvement. 

The negative impact of poor tone can be invisible. They’re the customers who never got in touch, the visitors who bounced off your homepage, or the emails that were trashed unread. So make sure you have a good grasp of your brand’s current tone. 

Step 3: It all begins with your brand

Tone of voice can’t happen in a vacuum. It has to begin with brand core values. Tone is how you communicate your brand personality in language — it’s how your brand sounds when it talks.

You’ve probably already done some work to define your brand identity and values: developing a vision-mission-values framework, a brand positioning statement, or a “brand pillars” document. It matters less what you created, but more that you really thought about what your brand is all about.

And there are two ways of doing this. You can analyze your brand from the outside in or the inside out:

  • Brand values outside in

This approach starts with your market.

Survey other brands in your industry. How do they position themselves, what’s their brand strategy, and how do they use language to get that across?

This reveals the universal values of companies in your sector — the type of values where it’s hard to imagine a competitor taking over the market without displaying them. It’s also your chance to spot some gaps. Maybe there’s a lack of companies using a playful (or even humorous) tone, and an opportunity for you to establish a distinctive voice in the marketplace. 

  • Brand values inside out

This approach starts from within your company.

You start at the core of your business and build outward, first to brand values and then on to tone. You’ll need to consider questions like:

  • What makes your brand unique?
  • What unique value do you offer your customers?
  • What is your company culture like?
  • How do you present yourself to your customers?
  • What are the core values you need to get across?

Brainstorming and discussing these questions with all of your company employees is vital to the authenticity of your values. This helps capture an inclusive understanding of your brand. It also establishes a work environment that employees are invested in. Meaning that you’ll retain your employees, while attracting top talent when hiring.

Step 4: A simple framework

A simple way of capturing your findings is to boil everything down to three one-word values that are the essence of your brand. The values should be distinct, yet complementary — that is, not synonymous, but not total opposites either.

Three values are a good way to keep things simple and focused. One or two values won’t give your brand enough dimension, while more than three risks duplication, or getting into too much detail.

Tom Albrighton, founder of ABC Copywriting and cofounder of the Professional Copywriters’ Network

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Design Station is a web application developer based in Seattle. Founded seven years ago by twin brothers, the company has started adding more staff. It mainly serves small or medium-sized firms that are looking for reliable, user-friendly ecommerce sites. Here’s the start of their framework:

It means …We work hard to build reliable code and test it thoroughly before it goes live. We really care about writing well-crafted code and finding the simplest, most elegant solution to every problem. We’re always on the lookout for what comes next, so we can be part of it!
It doesn’t mean …We’re rigid or uptight.We don’t get the job done.We’re dreamers. 

As you develop your values, you build a shared understanding of what they mean. Then you can clearly see how they’ll translate into writing style. And later on, when you’re putting your tone of voice into practice, it will be much easier to work out whether the content you’ve written is in line with your tone.

Keep these tips in mind when creating your framework: 

  • Don’t be afraid to use unexpected words. If your values are unique, the words to express them should be too. 
  • Don’t fall into the trap of choosing non-differentiating factors such as “friendly,” “honest,” or “reliable. They may be important to your services, but they won’t help you create a distinctive tone. 
  • Don’t use buzzwords like “dynamic” or “proactive.” They’re clichés and vague at best. Search for sharper, richer words that get closer to who your brand really is.
  • Don’t be too abstract. Make sure your values are real and practical, as you need to develop detail around them.

Step 5: From values to tone

Once you’ve nailed down your brand values, consider how they translate into writing style. You’ll need to align your values and your tone to start creating great experiences for your customers.

Let’s return to the Design Station example and see how their three values could translate into a tone framework. This brand has three aspects of its tone, in line with its values: a rigorous one for talking about practicalities, an idealistic one for linking to other people’s ideas, and a curious one for talking about the future.

DoKeep your writing clear and concise when specifying projects or explaining ideas.Stick to shorter words and sentences.Always give concrete details when you can. Don’t generalize.Use jargon as shorthand when you’re sure the reader will understand it. Say why you’re doing what you’re doing, using more flowing language. You can use longer words and sentences here.Use proven principles and thought leadership to justify your suggestions.Use questions to talk about the future product developments, and anything else forward-looking.Express excitement about what’s coming.
Don’tMake the language so clipped that you sound like a robot. Drift into abstraction — always link the ideas to what you’re actually doing.Speculate wildly or look too far into the future.Let your excitement become starry-eyed. 

In the same way as you make your brand values specific, make your tone specific. Don’t waste time writing generic guidance and remember that “human” or “approachable” aren’t tones of voice. So focus on values that make you distinctive.

So where do you go from here?

If you want to cut through a crowded, digital marketplace, and still connect with your customers, you need to use your brand values to help you define an authentic and inclusive tone. If you want to learn more about brand values and defining your tone, check out the Watch Your Tone! Why Your Company’s Tone of Voice Matters and How to Get it Right guide.

No matter how you define your tone of voice, you’ll want to make sure it’s inclusive to all prospects, customers, and employees. We recommend you look at The Acrolinx Inclusive Language Guide to learn about the importance of inclusive language in business. We’ll discuss the different aspects of inclusive language, the role of design in inclusive content, and the capabilities of technology in Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.