Want to know what big, disparate companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn, MarketingProfs, Unilever, Yamaha, Cisco, and Google all have in common? They recently began paying more attention to their corporate tone of voice.
Any guesses why? It’s because they understand what an important role their tone of voice plays in how their customers perceive them. Plus, they recognize that crafting their content with its own distinct and recognizable voice helps differentiate their brands from their competitors.
Of course, finding the right tone for your company is no small task. There are lots of factors to consider. Should it be contemporary or traditional? Practical or inspirational? Humorous or serious? And what exactly do any of those characteristics even mean?
Figuring out your tone isn’t easy and even once you have it, the work isn’t over. You still have to determine how your new tone of voice gets translated into your writing style.
The real question becomes – what components should you consider when applying the new tone of voice to your writing? In my view, it comes down to these 12 main elements:
1. Word length
As children, we learn shorter words first. So, if you want to be understood clearly by people 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.
2. Sentence length
Shorter sentences present a concise style, while longer ones are more complex. A good guide to follow to ensure the value of any sentence length is that you should be able to read it out loud in a single breath.
Using a shorter average-sentence length is good, but the key word in that phrase 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 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 first person (we) or third person (Acme Corp.). First person is more immediate, positioning your brand as a group of people, while third person is more detached and abstract, with less clarity as to who is speaking.
When referencing your audience, you can use second person (you) or third (customers or suppliers). Second person is direct and engaging, while third person is more distanced. I’ve written this blog post in the first and second person, which makes it clear I’m addressing you directly.
Conciseness is the ratio of ideas to words. The fewer words used to convey an idea, the more concise you are. On a practical level, being 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 to be less concise and incorporate additional words to achieve that less-concise feel.
Jargon is specialized language used in a particular professional domain such as law, finance, and engineering. There’s good and bad jargon. Bad jargon hides the truth and bamboozles people, while good jargon signals that the reader is part of a community. Good jargon also can save time and space.
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., big data, Internet of things, etc.). However, 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 fresh, but are now clichéd. Using clichés will probably make your tone sound stale and dull. You may need to use a cliché to meet readers where they are so they will respond, but you could pay a high price if you wind up sounding like everyone else.
Most people speak using contractions, such as you’re, don’t, or it’s, 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 we’re talking with friends and think nobody’s listening. It’s a flexible term because the meaning of casual varies speaker to speaker and culture to culture. Colloquial language is likely to use contractions and may include slang or even profanity.
MailChimp, an email marketing company, uses colloquial language. Have a look at this blog post with phrases like grabbing coffee, go look them up, bare bones, bunch of big buttons, and big a-ha moments. As the MailChimp example shows, colloquial language doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Writing colloquially doesn’t mean you can’t cover technical features or concepts. It just means you adopt the tone of an expert chatting to a non-expert.
11. Obscure words
Using obscure or unusual words has a similar effect as using jargon – you gamble on whether the audience will understand what you’re saying.
However, you might want to use an obscure word from time to time to suggest refinement or a certain type of heritage. If so, make it clear from context what the word means. For example, U.K. cake brand, Mr Kipling, uses the slogan Exceedingly good cakes. Since it’s obvious that exceedingly means very, anyone can understand the slogan.
12. 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 grammatical errors. Using the wrong word or spelling the right word incorrectly is undesirable in business writing. Unless it’s part of a deliberate creative strategy (e.g., Beanz Meanz Heinz), a mistake can only harm your chances of communicating well.
With grammar, the picture is less black-and-white. The prescriptive view is that we should respect and obey the rules of grammar. The descriptive view is that the right way to use language is the way people speak and write it, which is not necessarily reflected in the academic rules.
Some grammar rules can be bent or broken. For example, starting a sentence with and or but, or ending a sentence with a preposition like on is grammatically incorrect, but most people speak that way. If your tone of voice is casual or colloquial, you may want to write following your audience’s verbal voice, not the rules of grammar.
Companies are putting new emphasis on getting their tone of voice right and applying it consistently to all of their content. They know that when their tone of voice is consistent, their audience hears the same person speaking whenever and however they deal with them. That consistent voice shows customers that the brand is a consistent, reliable company to deal with, and that every part of their experience will be equally good.
Tone of voice is an important component in creating consistent branded content. Learn more about which tactics your peers are turning to for more effective content marketing creation and delivery. Read our e-book, Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Execution Tactics.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute