You can't throw a rock in content writing without hitting tone and voice. It's among the first pieces of advice new content writers hear — "match a brand's tone and voice."
Not sure what that means? You're not alone. Read on to learn what you need to know about tone and voice in writing, whether you're a marketer or a content writer first.
What's the Difference Between Tone and Voice?
Marketers often talk about tone and voice together. Some even (mistakenly) use the two terms interchangeably, but they're not the same. Using them well means understanding their differences.
Adults often say to children, "Don't use that tone with me." They're not asking the child to stop communicating but to say things differently. If a child asks "Why?" respectfully instead of with a whine, their parent might be more likely to explain the situation.
As we grow up, we learn to use tone to suit the situation. Top-notch writers are masters of this skill. They change their word choice, phrasing, and punctuation to express a brand's personality in a way that suits the situation.
A brand tone is the mood or feeling a brand chooses for a particular communication. It's not what the brand says but how it says it.
The tone suits a brand's voice but changes slightly depending on the message. Even the most casual brand wouldn't crack jokes in a press release or use slang in an investor report.
Think about how your funniest friend would tell you about a death in their family — that's an example of a shifting tone.
Skilled writers can shift a brand's tone without losing its voice. They can write a serious customer service policy update from a surfboard brand with a casual voice or a joyful holiday message from a doctor's office.
It's all in the nuance of word choice.
Brand voice develops from the words you use and the messages you send. It's a brand's personality and how it relates to the world. As such, it mostly stays the same across different pieces of content.
Think of some brands you know as a consumer. The ones that come to mind first are probably the ones with the strongest brand voices — just like the friends you think of first are the ones with the strongest personalities.
Nike always has a straightforward but supportive voice. Mailchimp is always cheerful and casual, even when discussing a complicated marketing concept. They know who they are as brand and speak that way to the world every time.
What Role Does Brand Tone and Voice Play in Content?
You create content to build relationships, offer value, and establish yourself as a source of truth. Some of your audiences encounter you for the first time through your content. Others already know that you offer valuable content, so they choose to engage again.
You establish those relationships through your brand voice and tone.
Builds an Emotional Connection With an Audience
Emotional experiences drive most purchases. According to Gallup research, 70% of consumer behavior is emotional, and only 30% is rational. We choose brands based on feelings and then justify purchases with rationality.
You can have the best product specs or service quality in your industry. If customers feel a stronger emotional pull toward a different brand, you'll need help to get them back.
Tone and voice let you connect on a personal level. They show people the human beings behind the content and make it easier to connect. Through that connection, you can elicit emotional responses.
For example, a brand marketing to parents of young children might adopt a tender and caring tone. Speaking like one parent to another, the content would connect with parents' commitment to their little ones.
That shared tenderness and love would help the audience feel connected to the brand. They'd think, that brand is for someone like me.
Creates Consistency Within a Content Strategy
When your target audience gets to know you through your content, they learn your brand's personality. They associate you with certain traits the same way they associate people with personal characteristics.
Your voice and tone establish that personality. The more consistent they are, the stronger and more trusting that relationship becomes.
Think about how you build relationships with acquaintances. Each meeting teaches you more about their beliefs and how they navigate the world.
If they show up acting and talking completely differently one day, it's disconcerting — especially if you don't know them well yet. You wonder about all the things you think you've learned bout them.
It's the same with brands. Consistent voice and tone guidelines reassure your audience, telling people that what they've learned about you is true.
That trust helps them feel confident buying from you. According to the 2021 state of brand consistency report by Marq, formerly Lucidpress, consistent branding can increase a company's revenue by up to 20%.
Provides Greater Understanding of Who a Company Is
You learn about a person's personality and core values by listening to what they say and how they say it. People understand the same thing through a company's content.
Think of the iconic " Mac vs. PC" ad campaigns from the late 2000s. From 2006 to 2009, Apple ran 66 ads featuring "Mac," a laid-back and friendly guy in a hoodie and jeans, and "PC," a slightly awkward younger man in a three-piece suit.
As Mac talked about all the fun things his Apple computer could do, PC tried to keep up. In one commercial, he sheepishly described his fun bundled "apps" — a clock and a calculator.
The message was clear. Macs were for people who were fun and cool. PCs were for the buttoned-up types. If you thought of yourself in that light, you'd want to buy a Mac and not the "uncool" PC.
Content tells consumers whether a product or service is "for someone like me." It also subtly communicates company values, from social views to what's essential in life.
According to the 2021 Global Trends Report from the World Economic Forum, 66% of U.S. consumers prefer buying from brands that share their values. Voice and tone let you communicate those values to your customers — as Apple's voice tells you not to take things too seriously.
How Do You Match Tone and Voice in Pieces of Writing?
With so many voices and types of tones, it takes time to decide what's right for a particular piece. Should you take an assertive tone or be a bit more casual? Here's how to make those critical decisions.
1. Ask for Examples to Gain Better Understanding of How to Hit Your Mark
Imagine your friend calling you and asking for your thoughts on their Cardi B impression. You listen politely, but it sounds exactly like the impression of Diane Sawyer they did for you last week. What do you tell them?
You'd probably tell them to watch some interviews with Cardi B. You'd advise them to listen to what words she uses, how she pitches her voice, and how she puts sentences together. Those observations would help your friend put together an impression that at least sounded more like a rapper/songwriter than a network broadcaster.
You copy someone's speech patterns by listening to them talk and mimicking how they sound. Writers do the same thing to internalize a brand's personality.
When you need to write in a brand's established tone and voice, look at the content it's already produced. Ask the brand's content teams or content strategists to give you two to three examples of articles or blog posts that they feel embody the brand's personality.
Also, ask them what they like about those voice and tone examples. What makes them "spot-on"?
2. Identify the Tone and Voice Prior to Writing
When you describe someone's personality, you use adjectives. They're outgoing, reserved, relaxed, nervous, passionate, or quiet. Those descriptions make it easier to visualize the person in your mind.
They also make it easier to write for a brand. If you describe a company's tone and voice using personality words, you can more easily write original content that conveys those characteristics.
For example, how would you describe the Apple character in the classic Apple vs. PC ads? You might use words like chill, laid-back, fun, or youthful. It's much easier to write chill and laid-back content than to write "like the commercial sounds."
It also helps to choose words that are the opposite of the voice and tone you want. Apple doesn't have a traditional, corporate, or formal tone. You can read through an article draft and look for examples of those characteristics in the content you created.
It's an effective way to self-edit for tone and voice without falling into plagiarism.
3. Compare Your Finished Article to Your Example
When you finish your first draft of an article, read it through from beginning to end. Then read the example you received as a reference for the desired voice and tone.
Ask yourself whether you and the example's writer sound like the same person. Do your "personality words" describe both pieces? If they don't — or almost do — try to identify what's different.
Maybe you aimed for casual but didn't quite keep your fallback academic formality out of your voice. Perhaps the brand you're writing for would use "but" instead of "however." Maybe it would use shorter or snappier sentences.
You might change a sentence like "Research indicates that 75% of the most successful companies plan to increase their content marketing budget for 2022" to "Did you know 3 out of 4 top marketers will spend more on content this year?"
When you make that change, compare your new version to the original article. Are you closer? Keep tweaking until your tone and voice sound consistent.
Examples of Tone
The best way to learn these skills is to see examples of voice and tone in writing. Here are three examples of companies that got tone right.
Take the energy drink company Rowdy Energy. Its brand is all about excitement and enthusiasm, so the Rowdy homepage sounds like this:
Race with energy, rebound with hydration. Get Rowdy!
NO, 100% NO! At Rowdy, we realize that hydration and energy go hand in hand. Staying hydrated helps maintain energy levels and keeps you feeling balanced. Add on top of that 160mg of clean and naturally sourced caffeine energy, you get a drink that will invigorate both physically and mentally!
By adding caps and exclamation, Rowdy creates energy that comes through on the page.
In his blog post " How to Stop Taking Life So Seriously," transformational coach Amit Sodha lightens the mood to make a point:
Get out there, have some fun and forget about everything for while [sic]. Go and do some crazy stuff with your friends…try something new, say hi to some random people, be silly, laugh at yourself when you fudge things up.
Not every post from Sodha is this humorous, but he knows how to "walk the walk" here.
Sometimes you must take a serious tone, even when you're not a serious brand. Many businesses had to achieve this difficult balance in the early days of COVID-19. Needing to stay in touch with customers but not wanting to make light of the situation, most brands aimed for a respectful tone.
Levi Strauss did this particularly well:
Levi.com is always open, but we understand shopping for jeans is probably the last thing on your mind right now. We'll get through this together by being kind, keeping healthy, and staying connected virtually with friends and loved ones.
This email about store closures has become a popular example of how to market during a crisis.
Examples of Voice
While tone adapts to a situation, voice remains the same. It's part of your brand's personality, just like your speaking style is an extension of your personality. Check out these examples.
Some brands create their personality through humor. One particularly hilarious example is Frida Baby, a distributor of baby and maternal care products.
Frida Baby is all about funny business. One of its mom-focused product categories is "Milk-Makin' Boobs." Its content has the same brand voice. Here's one of its posts about baby bath time:
Regardless of whether you’re a once-a-dayer or a sniff-and-scrubber, the fact remains: bathing your kids should be a whole helluva lot easier than it is. We shouldn’t need four different tubs, multiple bottles of products, or ear plugs to block out the screaming when you try to rinse your kid’s head. If we have to do bathtime then let’s do it better.
Frida does an excellent job keeping its voice even when it deals with more serious topics. Consider the 2020 blog post " What You Need to Know About Parenting Through a Pandemic":
Whether you’re pregnant during the pandemic (pregnademic?), a new mom on your own with a fresh baby at home, or a seasoned pro juggling Zoom calls with naps and crafts, we’ve got you covered.
For some brands, emotional connection is the ultimate goal. Take The Counseling Collective, a therapy practice in Pennsylvania. Their business is helping people manage emotions. Feelings are their brand voice and reason for being, and their content reflects that. Look at this section from its blog post " We Are All Living in Loss and Grief":
"When we have a disruption in this we respond at times without even knowing what is causing that response. It’s important to not only identify what the loss is but then also become aware of how to manage those grief responses. So how do we do this? Knowing and accepting that grief is a process and that we need to create space and time to process all the things that are impacting us from this loss is an important first step."
Content doesn't have to be sad to embrace an emotional voice. Consider this example from one of The Counseling Collective's gratitude posts:
"Wouldn’t you rather become someone who sees possibilities, who believes in and looks for the good in the world, who can uplift another with a smile? I know I would like to be this kind of person."
Almost everyone knows someone who builds their personality on pride — not the destructive boastful sort, but the kind that makes someone hold their head high. Brands can have the same kind of personality.
Take J.P. Morgan, the world's most successful financial holding company. Everything it puts out has inherent dignity and pride, from its web copy to its technology blog. This is one recent post from that blog:
"In JPMorgan Chase’s fiber optic production simulation lab, researchers from all three organizations collaborated to achieve the following notable results."
You can "hear" the pride even if you don't understand the specifics.
Master the Art of Tone and Voice
Getting tone and voice right can be challenging. Content writers spend years perfecting their ability to learn a new brand's voice and tone so they can write content as that brand.
One way to master tone and voice is to outsource your content creation to skilled writers. Compose.ly is your single source for any content you need, from blog writing to white papers.
Reach out today and find out how our expert writers can make your tone and voice shine through.