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How the wrong tone of voice is ruining your writing

Britney Spears One More Time Baby Gif

What does a song by Britney Spears have to do with communication?

Some songs you can’t imagine anyone else singing.

But did You Know Britney Spears’ Breakout song “Baby One More Time” wasn’t written for her

It was actually first offered to TLC but they turned it down.


Lead singer T-Boz explained, "I like the song but do I think it’s TLC? No disrespect to Britney, it’s good for her. But was I going to say ’hit me baby one more time’? Hell no! So, I’m clear that it was a hit, but I’m also clear that it wasn’t for TLC."

(That's right they didn't chase Waterfalls they stuck to what they knew!)

It's hard to imagine anyone else singing the song.

In his book Six Rules for Brand Revitalization: Learn How Companies Like McDonald's Can Re-Energize Their Brands, Larry Light Global CMO of McDonald’s from 2002 to 2005 writes about how changing their tone of voice created a ground-breaking campaign that helped bring McDonald’s back to life. He said: "What we communicate is important. How we communicate is also important. The tone and style of our communications had to be relevant."

Mcdonalds I'm Lovin it Gif

In the early 2000s McDonalds was in serious decline. It was under attack from the media, embroiled in child obesity debates and unhealthy food claims. They even made a documentary about the effects of eating McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! While previous McDonald’s campaigns seemed to focus heavily on the brand telling customers how to feel and what to do this type of lecturing tone of voice was not what their customers wanted to hear. "We told customers that they should take a break today; that we do it all for them; that nobody makes their day like we do at McDonald’s;"

Selection of Mcdonalds Ad

"They did not want a corporation telling them how great they are and that customers should appreciate what McDonald’s does for them. Clearly, we had to change the way in which we spoke to our customers. The traditional voice of McDonald’s might have been. “McDonald’s. You will love it. We called the new McDonald’s tone, the “I voice.” Instead of telling customers how to feel, we let them tell us how they feel. The expression “I’m lovin’ it” said that... I enjoy having McDonald’s in my life. It reminded everyone that McDonald’s was part of their lives and their culture and that McDonald’s overall experience was one of warmth and a real slice of everyday life." Source: Business Insider

You see, in the world of business communication and copywriting, few elements are as influential as your tone of voice. It can transform your message from mundane to memorable and become the very reason why your customers want to (and don't want to) work with you. "Tone of voice reflects your brand personality, helps you connect with your audience, and makes you different from the rest’. Semrush A brand's tone of voice refers to the unique personality and voice that a brand uses to communicate with its audience. It's the tone that sets the brand apart from others in its industry and helps to build a connection with its customers. It can be reflected in your language, tone, and style.

A consistent ToV helps to establish a strong brand identity and can ultimately impact how customers perceive and interact with the brand.

Take a look at these examples to see how similar information is often communicated and can become easily confused. Can you spot which statements are from Tesla, Volkswagon, Ford, and Toyota?

Selection of written content from Tesla, Volkswagon, Toyota and Ford

When you and your competitors have similar features and benefits your customers will consider who you are and whether they like you enough to trust you. How do you create the right tone of voice in 4 steps Whether you're writing for yourself or for another brand finding the right tone of voice involves a thoughtful process of self-reflection, audience analysis, and brand alignment.

  1. Who are you?

First, you need to understand your brand inside and out. You may feel you already do but oftentimes you're not your ideal client and need an external perspective.

Your audience wants to know what makes your brand tick - What makes you different, what they can identify with.

A good starting point is to think of your brand as a person. What kind of person would be the ideal spokesman for your company?

What’s appealing about that person, and why would people feel drawn and engaged? What does that person have to offer the world?

You may remember the 2000s I'm a Mac ads where a PC was portrayed as all business and traditional compared to the Mac creative, out-of-the-box thinker.

I'm a Mac ad

Here are a few questions to think about when defining your voice:

  • Content and Perception– how does your current voice sound?

  • Mission – your brand voice needs to reflect your mission (if you don't have one ask who or what are you fighting against and find your villain

  • Values – what does your brand stand for?

  • Personality – how would you describe your brand’s personality to a friend? even better ask a customer or somebody outside of your company how they would describe your business in three words.

  • Audience – who are you writing for? What types of content do they engage with?

2. Set the right tone What tone should your writers adopt to consistently get your brand voice across? Start to build a list of tone characteristics. Remember this will need to be consistent across all of your platforms so choose one that you like. Here are few common tone of voice traits:

  1. Encouraging, inspirational, uplifting

  2. Curious, daring

  3. Friendly, informative, empowering,

  4. Assertive, confident, aggressive

  5. Direct, straightforward, no-nonsense

  6. Trustworthy, Caring, educational

  7. Dry, upbeat, witty, pun-filled

Selection of different brand tone of voice

3. Find your Language

David Ogilvy said “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

The type of language that a brand uses is a strong indicator as to the type of relationship it is looking to form with its customers.

Select the language style and vocabulary that align with your brand's personality with your audience. For instance, if your brand aims to be friendly and approachable, you could use conversational language and avoid jargon.

Upmarket brands often use structured, aspirational language built around sophisticated concepts – or, if they are a global brand, they may look to express much of their personality visually and with a distinct lack of words.

More populist brands look to break down the jargon and acronyms of an industry and talk to consumers in language that is much closer to how buyers themselves speak.

Professional brands tend to be the most talkative – although this doesn’t always work in their favor because they can become self-absorbed very quickly.

Lifestyle brands are often cheeky and carefree, and their language reflects that casualness.

  1. Formal Tone: Professional & Corporate

    • Characteristics: You will want to maintain a polished and more structured language style. The formal tone is professional, authoritative, and often used in serious or academic contexts. It adheres to proper grammar and syntax, avoids contractions, and uses a more extensive vocabulary.

    • Use Cases: Formal tone is suitable for legal documents, academic papers, reports, and business communications where professionalism and authority are essential.

  1. Inspirational Tone: Caring & Inspiring, Positive

    • Characteristics: The inspirational tone aims to motivate and uplift the audience. It uses positive language, often employs storytelling, and strives to create an emotional connection.

    • Use Cases: Inspirational tone is effective in marketing campaigns, advertisements, and content meant to inspire action or convey a sense of purpose.

  1. Conversational Tone: Playful & Friendly

    • Characteristics: The conversational tone is friendly, approachable, and relatable. It mimics everyday speech and often includes contractions and colloquial expressions.

    • Use Cases: Conversational tone is ideal for blog posts, social media content, email marketing, and any communication that aims to build a personal connection with the audience.

  1. Humorous Tone: Casual

    • Characteristics: The humorous tone incorporates humor, wit, and playfulness. It uses wordplay, puns, and jokes to entertain and engage the audience.

    • Use Cases: Humorous tone can work well in advertisements, social media content, and marketing campaigns where the goal is to entertain and create a memorable impression.

A brand may speak in multiple languages – but it should look as much as possible to speak in one distinctive tone of voice everywhere. 4. Create The Rhythm Every brand needs a speech pattern. It needs to speak at a certain speed, and in a particular way, so that your audience consciously or sub-consciously ‘hear’ your brand’s voice whenever they read your words. What I do which isn't too weird, is to ask myself "When I read my words out loud who's my perfect narrator?" Is it Morgan Freeman? George Clooney? Sandra Bullock? Scarlett Johanssen? Try it! Having said that, there are often clear sectoral dialects. Retail brands often speak quickly and with energy to convey urgency and opportunity while Lifestyle brands, because they want to be seen as relaxed, often adopt a more slower-paced and conversational tone of voice, more attuned to the peaceful surroundings of their audience. (think Chris Hemsworth) Professional brands, on the other hand, tend to adopt a more measured, carefully structured style of speaking that uses much longer sentences, and is much more fluent and structured. This reflects their desire for credibility, authority, and reliability. (definitely someone with a British accent - possibly Benedict Cumberbatch) **Although at times 'it's good to go against the norm and break the pattern, you may want to consider whether your audience would become confused if your accounting firm adopted the speech pattern of a lifestyle brand, or vice versa.

Testimonial using the word professional

When I first started I thought I had to be professional. I can see from my past testimonials this was something clients picked up on. But the more I leaned into my business the more I wanted to change my tone of voice to reflect my personality and not what I thought my business market wanted.

From the copy on my website and the posts on social media, I hope you notice the excitement and enjoyment I have being a Strategic Writer and Communication Designer and why I do what I do.

Once you know where you want to position your brand and you have established a personality that speaks to the strategy and distinguishes the brand from competitors, you'll want to make sure everyone in the business is clear about your Brand's ToV. It should be consistent from your website to your emails.

Too often brands fail to follow this through. They create their ToV only to apply it to where they think their customers' main touchpoints are ie: appearing in advertising and some external communications but it’s not present in other forms of correspondence or digital environments.

When a brand fails to carry its voice through to all its touchpoints, it quickly muddles expectations and experiences. Customers will expect the brand to behave in a particular way only to find themselves being spoken to in a conflicting, way elsewhere within the same brand.

Your tone of voice should paint a clear picture of who you are as a brand.

The way you make your readers feel will define your personality and will directly impact your business.

Take a close look at who you are as a brand and what perception you want people to have of you from your writing.

Consider Context and Platform:

  • Adapt your tone of voice to suit different contexts and platforms. What works on social media may not be suitable for formal documentation. Train your team to adjust the tone accordingly while staying true to the brand's core voice.

Test and Iterate:

  • Pilot your tone of voice in real-world scenarios, such as marketing campaigns or customer interactions. Collect feedback from both internal and external sources. Use this feedback to refine and improve your brand's voice over time.

Train Your Team:

  • Ensure that your team members, especially those responsible for content creation and customer interactions, understand and can implement the brand's tone of voice guidelines effectively. Training and ongoing support are essential.

Monitor and Maintain Consistency:

  • Continuously monitor your content and communication channels to ensure consistency in your tone of voice. Regularly review and update your brand voice guide as needed to reflect any changes in your brand's identity or audience preferences.

Adapt to Feedback and Trends:

  • Be open to feedback and evolving trends. The tone of voice should remain flexible enough to adapt to changing audience expectations and industry shifts while staying rooted in your brand's core values.



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