It's not just what you say, it's how you say it. Tone of voice is the yin to the yang of key messages when it comes to brand communications
“Never use a long word where a short one will do,” is one of Orwell’s famous five rules for good writing. Simple, but instructive and oh so often ignored, especially when it comes to business writing. It’s easy to sound pompous in writing, hard to sound natural, conversational. Which is funny when you consider that we all do a lot more talking than writing. But somehow when we pick up a pen or pluck a keyboard, we get all stuffy and convoluted.
What did you say?
If key messages are the ‘what’ of communications, tone of voice is the ‘how.’ “Stand and deliver!” or “I would be extremely grateful if you would please slow down and hand over your valuables to me.” Same message, different tone of voice.
Although it sounds easy, it’s actually quite hard to call out brands that have a distinctive and consistent tone of voice in business. Tons of effort goes into grammar and technical accuracy – as it should – but almost no effort goes into defining and maintaining a consistent tone of voice in brand communications for professional service firms.
If key messages are the ‘what’ of communications, tone of voice is the ‘how’.
Notable exceptions include Goldman Sachs, who, in the world of professional services brands, do get an awful lot right. Goldman’s tone of voice is captured exquisitely (or ‘well’ as Orwell would prefer) in their published Business Principles. “We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients,” is my favourite, but the whole thing is crisp, precise and uncompromising, which is exactly what they intend. This is a terrific example of how a strong tone of voice can lift something that can often be a bland statement of ‘values’ into a meaningful and instructive piece of communications.
One tone, one voice
Another is The Economist; a great example of how tone of voice can make the complex seem approachable without dumbing it down. It’s also a fabulous example of how a strong tone of voice can project consistency across a whole host of contributors. Read an edition of The Economist (and, if you can be bothered, any issue of the magazine, forever), and you get the strong impression that they had the same person write every word in every article.
They didn’t, of course, but by having an exceptionally well defined and controlled tone of voice, they manage to pull it off.
To define the tone of voice for a professional services firm you need to think about the best practices (there’s always room for improvement!) and what you want to stand out for, to help communicate the subtle but distinctive brand of your firm (like Goldman does).
“Never use the passive when you can use the active.”
“Never use the passive when you can use the active.” is another of Orwell’s rules containing low hanging fruit. You can’t get more straightforward than that, can you? But it’s incredible how easy it is to default to the passive as soon as it comes to business writing. For non-linguists, it can be a bit tricky to spot it creeping in (but these days there’s always an app for it!). ‘Batman threw the Joker from the rooftop,’ is active. ‘The Joker was thrown from the roof by Batman,’ is passive. Both are grammatically fine; they only differ in tone.
The challenge for a professional service firm in going further than this is that there’s no one way, and no right way. The Economist isn’t ‘right’ where the Wall St Journal is ‘wrong,’ they’re just different, and in the Economist’s case, deliberately different.
Often big brands with a strong and consistent tone of voice have an actual singular individual who sets (or once set) the tone. Think Virgin, Apple, Tesla, Google. Others have strong cultures which help support a consistent tone. Think Goldman, McKinsey. Most big professional service firms are no longer run by their founders, so you’ll need to herd a few cats to define a clear tone of voice and create a consensus for it.
Once you’ve decided what the tone is, you need to capture it in a simple framework and then, as with anything like this, go about institutionalising it, trying to strike a balance between structures, encouragement, training and some good-old coercion.
And, on the hygiene factors, don’t reinvent the wheel; fortunately, many excellent writers have done this for you; the Economist Style Guide and the Reuters Guide, are good options.