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You talkin’ to me? – why tone of voice matters

I’m sat typing this at my kitchen table and my mind has already drifted to the snack cupboard. A couple of Jaffa Cakes later, I conduct another survey of the groceries – this time in the name of research. 

I’m sat typing this at my kitchen table and my mind has already drifted to the snack cupboard.

A couple of Jaffa Cakes later, I conduct another survey of the groceries – this time in the name of research.

I notice that a pouch of baby food is ‘talking’ to me in the first person, like a friendly Alice in Wonderland potion (‘eat me’, ‘heat me’, ‘here’s how to store me’); the tofu in the fridge is inviting me to ‘join a revolution’; and the language on the herbal tea box is almost as flowery as the ingredients inside it.

As for the Jaffa Cakes, a quick Google leads me to the company website, which affectionately refers to them as: ‘chocolatey-orange rascals’, ‘cheeky chums’ and ‘spongey zesty mischief’(!).

These products are each addressing me with their tone of voice. They’re communicating in such a way that, together with their visual design, gives the brand a unique identity and a competitive edge on a crowded supermarket shelf.

I didn’t consciously buy these items as a direct result of the wording (who knew the biscuits were ’troublemakers’?) – but, no doubt, it has an effect on how I think about the products – and what they have to offer.

Of course, tone of voice extends well beyond packaging and taglines: it can encompass every form of a company’s content from web copy to a newsletter to a social media post – sometimes even the terms and conditions. Whether we’re reading a university prospectus, a charity’s mission statement or a bank’s FAQs page, the style of writing will tell us a lot about that organisation and determine how we interact with it.

Keep it consistent

Marketing experts have long spoken of the importance of a consistent tone of voice across all platforms of communication. Because when a business speaks with a unified voice, it helps to build trust among clients and customers.

In the same way that spelling and grammar inaccuracies can damage a reputation, inconsistencies in tone of voice can seriously put people off. Or simply confuse them.

That’s why many companies have tone of voice guidelines, to ensure that everyone – from the CEO to customer services to an external copywriter (like me) –  is talking from the same page.

As a freelance writer, I find that it can be really useful to have a company’s tone of voice spelled out in this way. But, often, it’s a more organic process; finding the voice is part of the job.

Here are three things I like to keep in mind:

1. Authenticity: whether I’m writing for a business or individual, I have to consider who they are, what they stand for – and how they actually speak. We can’t all be smoothie-talkers à la Innocent and being quirky for the sake of it will do you no favours. ‘Open me’ might work on the front of a snack pack; less so on the envelope of a gas bill.

2. Audience: you’re talking, who’s listening? The whole point is to make the writing land effectively. Who is it that I’m trying to persuade, engage and inform – and am I doing it in a language that speaks to them?

3. Adaptability: what’s the context? MailChimp’s guidelines explain brilliantly how a brand’s voice can stay consistent, while the tone can be tweaked according to circumstances. You wouldn’t use the same tone when responding to a customer’s complaint as you would in a sales promotion, for instance.

Tone of voice is more of an art than a science, but there’s certainly an element of accuracy needed to get it just right. If you have any examples that you think are great – or ones that you find particularly grating – we’d love to hear from you.

Now, I’m off to read the back of the oat milk.

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