Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series about tone of voice. You can read our previous posts about what tone of voice is and why it matters, and how to develop your tone of voice using your brand values and how to go beyond brand values.
Once you have defined your company’s tone of voice, the challenge becomes figuring out how to bring it to life in your content. For example, how do you give your content a formal tone versus an informal one, or an inspirational tone versus a practical one? In this post, we’ll take a look at the different elements of writing that you need to consider when implementing your tone of voice. By adjusting the factors outlined below, you will be able to create whatever type of tone you’re after.
As children, we learn shorter words first, longer ones later. So if you want to be clearly understood by readers of all reading levels, use shorter words. In terms of tone, short words are simple and direct, while longer ones suggest sophistication and nuance. Shorter words tend to be punchier and harder, while longer words can give a softer, more relaxed effect.
Shorter sentences give a concise style, while longer ones are more sedate. A good guide is that you should be able to read any whole sentence out loud in a single breath.
Using shorter average sentence length is good, but the key word is average. To keep readers interested, vary the length of sentences and paragraphs to give an organic, varied rhythm with its own ebbs and flows.
Pronouns are words that stand in place of the names of people or things. Your choice of pronouns can have a big effect on your tone. For example, when writing about your company, you can use the first person (“we”) or the third person (“Acme Corp”). The first person is more immediate, positioning yourself as a group of people, while the third person is much more detached and abstract, with less clarity as to who is speaking.
Conciseness is the ratio of ideas to words. The fewer words you use to convey an idea, the more concise you are. On a practical level, more concise is better. Getting to the point saves time and therefore money. But if you want to adopt a more flowing, rambling, or descriptive tone, you’ll need some “extra” words to achieve the laid-back feel you’re going for.
Jargon is specialized language used in particular professional domain such as law, finance, and engineering, among others. There’s good and bad jargon, just like there’s good and bad cholesterol. Bad jargon is there to hide the truth and bamboozle people. Good jargon, on the other hand, signals that you’re part of a community, and saves time too.
Buzzwords are jargon terms that have the attraction of novelty. Some fields, particularly in the tech industry, generate a lot of buzzwords because they need to name innovations (e.g., “millennials,” “big data,” “Internet of things,” etc.). The same caution applies to buzzwords as to jargon: only use them if you know the audience will understand. Also, remember that today’s hot buzzword is tomorrow’s embarrassing anachronism.
Clichés are words and phrases that have become worn out through overuse. In B2B, words such as “solution,” “proactive,” and “leverage” were once new and fresh, but have now become clichéd. Using clichés will probably make your tone sound stale and dull. There may be times when you need to meet readers where they are by using a cliché you know they will respond to, but you could pay a high price if you wind up sounding like everyone else.
Contractions are formed of two words combined into one, such as “you’re,” “don’t,” or “it’s.” Most people use contractions all the time when they talk, except in the most formal situations. So using them in writing makes your tone informal, relaxed, and accessible, and gives readers a strong sense of being in a conversation.
Colloquial language is the language of everyday casual speech — the way we talk when nobody’s watching. It’s a flexible term, because the definition of casual varies from speaker to speaker, and from culture to culture. Colloquial language is likely to use contractions (see above) and may also include slang, or even profanity.
Using obscure or unusual words has a similar effect as using jargon — you’re gambling on whether or not the audience will understand what you’re saying. However, you might want to drop one in from time to time to suggest refinement or a certain type of heritage. If so, try to make it clear from context what the obscure word means. For example, UK cake brand Mr Kipling uses the slogan “Exceedingly good cakes.” Since it’s obvious that “exceedingly” means “very,” anyone can understand the slogan.
Mistakes and rule-breaking
Technical problems that can creep into your writing include easily confused words (e.g., “peek one’s interest” instead of “pique one’s interest”), misspellings, and grammar errors. Most people would agree that using the wrong word, or spelling the right word incorrectly, is undesirable in business writing. Unless it’s part of a deliberate creative strategy (“Beanz Meanz Heinz”), a mistake can only harm your chances of communicating well.
Bringing your company’s tone of voice to life is simply a matter of adjusting factors like these in your content to achieve the desired effect. The challenge for large organizations is figuring out how to do so at scale.
To find out more and to learn how to help your company develop its tone of voice, check out Acrolinx’s free eBook, “Watch Your Tone! What Your Company’s Tone of Voice Matters and How to Get it Right.”