August 1st 2016, posted by

Why tone of voice guides don’t change the way people write

It's not just because they're 164 pages long

Every business has a tone of voice guide.

Dig around on your company’s intranet and you’ll find one, lurking there like an unloved book at the back of a library.

Tone of voice guides are (usually) full of practical, helpful tips on writing. So if every business has one, why don’t they change the way people write?

People won’t change if they can’t see the benefits

The fact is that no one changes their writing because they read a guide (at least, not a tone of voice guide).

They change it for the same reason they do anything at work: because they can see the benefits. The benefits to them, not just to the company.

Guidelines typically explain how tone of voice helps the organisation (“it reflects our values”, “it ensures consistency”), but rarely answer the pressing questions people have, like: Why should I? What do I get out of it? How will it help me?

Even if the tone of voice principles are couched in cosy brand language, the underlying message is still: the company wants you to do this, so do it.

This dictatorial approach rarely works, because unless the consequences are dire – and we’ve yet to hear of anyone getting fired for not using their company’s tone of voice – people won’t change their writing without a real incentive.

So, do you tear up the guide?

No. There will always be heated discussions (arguments) about how the company uses capital letters or whether it’s acceptable to mix I and we in the same message (it is). A guide is a good way to settle these grammatical quarrels.

But beyond the style points, guidelines are fairly useless when it comes to bringing about real changes to the way people write.

For us, every tone of voice project should have writers at the heart of it. Not just professional copywriters (who get it anyway), but the people who write letters, emails, reports, blogs, stories and social media posts every day.

And most importantly people need proper training and coaching to understand how they can apply the principles of the guide to their writing day-to-day.

Because ultimately it’s what people write day-to-day that sets the tone – no matter what the guidelines say.


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