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How not to do tone of voice guidelines

Between us we’ve created hundreds of tone of voice guidelines for clients of all shapes and sizes. And critiqued a fair few too. Here are the main pitfalls we tend to see, handily collated for your perusal.

Agency News

Nick Padmore
Creative Director, Schwa

No need to thank us. This is better than therapy.

The guidelines are too vague

Some unscrupulous agencies will gladly take your money and give you a few beautifully kerned adjectives on a single slide in return. The slide will look great, of course, but so did the emperor’s new clothes.

I’ll save you a lot of money: trusted, human, down to earth, engaging, passionate, bold.

You can take your pick of those for nothing. Which is fitting, because that’s what they’re worth on their own.

Tell ten people to write in a ‘bold’ way and you’ll get ten different interpretations. Tell them how to do it, by cutting out hedgy words for instance, and you’ll get one.

They’re too detailed

The opposite is just as much of a problem.

A lot of tone of voice guidelines look a bit like design guidelines, with loads of detail about exactly what sort of headline is best in ten different situations, matrices explaining how the tone should flex according to different audience segments, and long lists of vocabulary the brand does and doesn’t use.

Nobody, repeat nobody, wants that level of detail.

Design guidelines are for designers, who are being paid to know the specifics.

Tone of voice guidelines are for everyone, which means you can expect people to remember one or two things at the most.

They give people a get-out clause

It’s hard to convince even a single person to change the way they write, let alone a workforce of hundreds or thousands.

If you say your tone of voice can flex, that’s the get-out clause people are looking for. It’s permission to ignore the guidelines, because a tone of voice that flexes isn’t really a tone of voice.

There’s no incentive

People with ‘brand’ or ‘marketing’ in their job title are expected to at least know about the tone of voice. People who don’t, aren’t. So why should they bother?

 

Go out and get some proof that it’ll be worth their while. Do some A/B tests and get evidence that your tone of voice boosts sales, placates angry customers, makes people click your links, or whatever else you think will hit home.

Then shout from the rooftops about all those great results. Your friends in internal comms will come in very handy.

They aren’t linked to something your leaders care about

Think like a spin doctor. If your company’s on a big drive to be more ruthless, your tone of voice absolutely has to be branded as the ruthless writing programme. That way you’ve made it part of the wider mission, giving leaders a reason to back it and employees a reason to use it (either out of a sense of duty, or because their bonus depends on it).

The guidelines aren’t in the tone of voice they describe

Your guidelines shouldn’t just explain what the tone of voice is. They should be a shining example of it. If they’re not, you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

The guidelines are all there is

Guidelines alone do not make a tone of voice. They’re useful, but really they’re the weakest weapon in your arsenal.

If you want every single person in your organisation to use the tone of voice, you need a rollout plan that’s savvy to the fact that people don’t want to change.

We like the COM-B model of behaviour change: you need to give people the capability, opportunity and motivation to change.

Capability means giving people the skills they need to do it. So train them. A lot.

Opportunity means building an environment where it’s easy to do it. So get the CEO to back it, or build a team of tone of voice champions to spread the word.

Motivation means encouraging people to do it. So give people an incentive.

Nick Padmore is Creative Director at Schwa specialising in communications, culture and customer experience and a member of the GO! Network.

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