What is tone of voice?

Tone of voice (TOV) is not ‘what’ you say, but ‘how’ you say it. When seen in the business and marketing landscape, the phrase ‘tone of voice’ refers to the written – rather than spoken – word. Your brands tone of voice should inform all of your written language, including your website, social media messages, emails, advertising, packaging, etc.

Tone of voice is also an expression of the people behind the brand, the things that drive you, your loves and hates, and what you want to share with the world. The tone of voice of your brand should embody and express both your personality and set of values.

Why is defining your tone of important?

Tone of voice reflects your brand personality, helps you connect with your audience, and makes you different from your competition. Your tone of voice should build trust and can be used to influence and persuade your prospects and customers. A successful tone of voice should go without being noticed. The objective is for your audience to be drawn to your brand, rather than comment on your great copywriting skills and flawless tone of voice.

The way we write and the language we use send strong signals about who we are and what we stand for. By using a consistent tone of voice in our writing, we can make sure that our values and personality shine through. When thinking through your tone of voice, remember the work you have done on your vision, mission, values, audiences and brand archetype as these need to all work together for a solid and articulate brand.

Some principles for consideration when thinking about your tone of voice are:

  • Using the right words – use language  that brings your vision, mission and values to life. 
  • Decide between using ‘me’ and ‘I’ which has a more personal connection versus using ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’ which sounds more like a brand, group or business.
  • Choose between the use ‘you’ to address your reader (more personal), or ‘customers’ (talking to a group).
  • Use language you know your audience will understand. For a non-technical audience, this means making complex things easy to understand. Use short words, and find simple alternatives to technical terms and business jargon. This is about making your writing appetising and easy-to-read for a wide range of people. 

First, second or third person?

First, second, and third person are ways of describing points of view. You should determine which person you plan to write from as part of documenting your tone of voice for brand consistency:

  1. First person is the I/we perspective.
  2. Second person is the ‘you’ perspective.
  3. Third person is the he/she/it/they perspective.

The Neilsen Norman Group conducted qualitative usability testing and online surveys to determine the broader qualities that make up the tone of voice. At the end of the process they identified four primary tone of voice dimensions.

  1. Formal tone versus casual tone
  2. Funny tone versus serious tone
  3. Respectful tone versus irreverent tone
  4. Enthusiastic tone versus matter-of-fact tone