Finding Your Voice

If design gives companies their very own look, tone of voice gives them, well, the voice to go with the look. A voice personalises the brand and makes it distinctive.

There are millions of clothing companies, but Boden has tone of voice nailed.

Boden = founder Johnnie. He’s English, plummy, a lovely chap. Likes a blazer, but only if it’s linen and a bit rumpled with a cricket jumper underneath. And only wears a tie when absolutely forced to by the wife.

Should you be in any doubt about who is behind the brand with its ‘flippy skirts’ and ‘Italian Stallion’ shirts, just phone the customer-care line: ‘Hello, Johnnie here,’ he purrs, as if you’re through to his voicemail. ‘Sorry about the wait…’

You can practically hear his Jack Russell barking in the distance and the chatter of the girls who flit about his office eating dried apple rings because they’ve given up sugar for Lent… Yes, I know, I may have spent a little too long in Mini Boden land.

jackrussell

If your delightfully unique company was founded by you, and you alone wrote all the original copy in the early days, then brand, tone of voice and personality is ‘Easy 101’. You keep the ball rolling by employing people who totally get your business – and you let them write as they please.

For major corporations spanning three continents and employing thousands of people selling serious financial products, tone of voice is not so easy to boil down.

Also, financial-services companies have the challenge of having to be absolutely correct, compliant and professional – without sounding just plain old dreary and dull.

And no one at those companies likes to think of all those letters and brochures, which took hundreds of hours and teams of people to write, getting no more than a quick once-over before they hit the bin and the customer hits the helpline.

Tone of Voice DIY

So how do you find or refresh your company’s tone of voice without the help of the flat-white-sipping, retro-trainer-wearing, eye-wateringly expensive brand strategists?

Maybe you have to ask your most honest employees which words sum up your communications. Are they boring? Uninspired? Or, even worse, incomprehensible? Packed with jargon and downright unreadable?

thisisjargon

Then dig deep, ask around and brainstorm until you come up with the three or four words or phrases that can provide the guideline – benchmark, even – for your new or improved tone of voice.

If you’re selling t-shirts or headphones, you might go with awesome, groovy, or hipster.

But for pensions, life insurance, or investments, you’ll probably want words like calm, clear, professional, reliable, aspiring or secure.

Different companies sell different things so, of course, they should speak in different ways. You wouldn’t expect the Fortnum and Mason website to sound like the Adidas one.

How do you talk to your customer? Like a business partner? Like an equal? Do you want to sound honest? Straightforward?

Once you’ve found the right voice, maintain it with a good editing process – clear guidelines, or a style guide, laying out which words and phrases you use and don’t use.

Macmillan Cancer Care, for example, keeps a careful list of how writers can refer to patients:

People with cancer, living with cancer, affected by cancer – yes.

Cancer victims or cancer sufferers – no.

It could be helpful to have someone in mind as the voice of your company. Who would read your brochure aloud on Audible? Who would do the voiceover for your advert? Is it Judi Dench, in brusque, no-nonsense tones? Is it Richard Attenborough, factual and informative, but with bursts of great enthusiasm? Maybe it’s Kate Winslet? Very English, but warm.

Re-shaping customer communications into something more unique, with a distinctive voice, is one of the simplest ways to begin to turn a faceless company into a recognisable brand.

Fresh and original writing is your chance to connect directly with your customer – use it or lose them.

Carmen Reid

5 March 2015