January 13th 2017, posted by

Why businesses should forget ‘tone of voice’

It's distracting them from good writing. Ironically.

At the end of a writing workshop last week, one of our clients said:

“That was really useful. I can see how those tips will make our communications much clearer and more interesting. But it wasn’t about tone of voice. It was just good writing.”

Despite how contradictory this sounds, I know what she means.

Like so many other brand concepts, ‘tone of voice’ has become the enemy of what it was designed to improve: writing. A company’s tone of voice guidelines often bear no relation to the day-to-day communications they produce. So it’s no wonder people see tone of voice as something separate from good writing.

Just another buzzword 

‘Tone of voice’ is now part of the brand lexicon, so much so that talking about good writing seems faintly twee nowadays, or at least something less sophisticated.

But as familiar as ‘tone of voice’ is to some, it’s alienating to others. It comes across as something marketing people do, not something that will help, say, HR or customer service improve their writing.

In fact, in our experience adding the label ‘tone of voice’ can actually put people off, even if they don’t know what it means.

For example, when our clients run writing training sessions with the word ‘tone of voice’ in the title, people are either a. intimidated, b. confused or, c. think they’ve been signed up to the wrong course.

At best, they think of the session as a ‘briefing’ (it’s even called this sometimes). In other words, something they need to be aware of, but not something that will help them to change the way they write.

All ideas, no action 

Another reason tone of voice is seen as different from good business writing is that precious little thought goes into how to turn it from an concept into something practical. In other words, how will this lofty idea help people with their writing?

You have a tone of voice. So what? What difference does it actually make? It may be that because tone of voice work is rarely measured, there’s no incentive to do anything other than put a tick in the brand box.

How to avoid the pitfalls of tone of voice

If you really want to make a difference to the way your business writes, our advice is to stop thinking about ‘tone of voice’ and start thinking about good writing.

Ask yourself: how will this help to improve the things people write every day – the hundreds of emails, reports and presentations we write – not just the ads and marketing messages?

Focusing on good writing rather than tone of voice doesn’t mean you can’t have a discinctive way with words that sets your brand apart. But it will cut through all the brand blah. It’ll make sense to people outside brand and marketing. And it’ll produce real results, not just a nice idea.


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