The 3 biggest tone of voice mistakes

In this episode, I'm turning my attention to the 3 biggest mistakes you can make when capturing and defining a brand's tone of voice.

I look at why these will mean your tone of voice won't work as well as it could, and what you can do to fix it (without dropping dollar on a TOV consultant, because I know that's not an option for everyone).


Hi there, welcome to episode three of brand voice notes — thanks for joining me. If you're new here, my name is Felicity Wild and I'm a brand voice and messaging specialist, which means I help people work out what to say and how to say when they write copy for their brand. 

Today, I want to look at the biggest tone of voice mistakes that I see most commonly in my work. The title is actually misleading because the biggest tone of voice mistake, in my opinion, is not having one. But I feel my arguments and reasons for this are covered in episode two: the business case for tone of voice. If you haven't watched that, you can go ahead and catch up on the previous episode.

Today, I'm looking at the biggest mistakes I see when people decide they're going to do tone of voice work. And these are the mistakes they most commonly make at the capturing and defining stage. 

There are loads of mistakes you can make all the way through the process, particularly at the implementing stage when you're applying that tone of voice in real life. But these are the mistakes most often made right at the start: the superficial tone of voice, the copycat tone of voice and the wishful thinking tone of voice. 

For each of these, I'll talk you through what I mean, why I don't think it's a good thing or why I consider it bad practice and what you can do to fix it if you find yourself going down this path. 

Now obviously, my biggest piece of advice if you're struggling with tone of voice is to hire an expert. But I know that's not always realistic. I'm aware, if you're watching this video, you may well be considering DIY-ing your tone of voice. So I've tried to include advice and tips that are practical, that you can use and that won't cost you any money. 

We'll start off with the superficial tone of voice. And I see this all the time — this is the most common mistake I see. And it’s: “we are friendly professional experts”. 

You might be thinking, what's wrong with wanting to be a friendly, professional expert? 


But the problem is most of us want to sound like friendly, professional experts. And the whole point of doing tone of voice work is to create a distinct verbal identity for your brand that's going to help you stand out. That's going to make an emotional connection with your audience. That’s going to make a statement about who you are and what you’re like to work with and how you can transform people's lives. 

Okay, that last one was maybe a little dramatic, but you get my point. And being a “friendly, professional expert” might not necessarily achieve this goal. 

So what can you do about it? If your brand voice is bland. If you've just gone for the obvious. 

You can look for inspiration to widen your horizons  — to get more creative — and to (what I call) go beyond givens. 

I’ve put some suggestions here for how to do that. Emotive Feels is a great website to open your eyes to the possibilities and to get your creativity moving. I've also included a link to my Instagram profile where I upload weekly tone of voice inspiration to help you go beyond givens and to do something really distinctive and exciting with your brand's tone of voice. 

Moving on to the second mistake: the copycat tone of voice. 

This I see a lot as well  — people come to me and tell me they want to sound like Oatly, or like Innocent or they want to sound like Hendrick's gin. 

And that's understandable, because they're really successful companies. And a lot of their success has been built on their distinctive sound and their unusual way of writing copy. 

It's understandable that you'd also want to copy their tone of voice. But the reason that won’t work is because tone of voice is about sounding like yourself, not about sounding like someone else. 

These brands are successful because they don't sound like anyone else. So if you copy them, you're really not achieving the whole point of tone of voice. 

So what can you do if you fall into this trap? 

My advice would be to stop asking how you “should” sound. Zoom out and start to get curious about how you already sound. 

Some ways to do this: if you're a solo business owner, you could get a friend to interview you and record it. Maybe on Zoom or just using your phone, and then listen back. 

Don't plan your answers. Don't script it. And listen to how you sound and the characteristics in your voice and how you express yourself. This can give you some clues about what your tone of voice already is, some insight into how you sound. 

If you're a larger business, you could use the same approach but interview some people from your team. Listen back to the recordings and start looking for themes and picking out distinctive things that people say and interesting ways of expressing themselves. 

Maybe you notice that everybody is really good at very clearly explaining what they do. Or maybe everyone has a real energy and a real passion and it sounds like they can't wait to get out of bed every morning and start work. You know, they've got a real zest for life. 

This can give you little hints about what your brand's tone of voice could be, to make it authentic and credible and an actual reflection of your organisation, rather than Innocent or Oatly.

And finally the third mistake: the wishful thinking tone of voice. 

I don't see this as often. And I really don't want to shame anyone here. But sometimes I see people that have gone way too kind of wacky and creative and “out there” with their voice. 

Which does work for some people. 

But I then speak to them. And I look at their organisation, and it really doesn’t match the tone of voice they’ve chosen. 

There's nothing wrong with being slightly aspirational, but it's always got to be grounded in reality. 

So my example here is unconventional, disruptive jokers. Which is great and really cool and creative. But if this isn’t truthfully who you are as an organisation, it's going to be really hard to write credibly, and consistently in this tone of voice. If it doesn't actually reflect anyone in your organisation or anything you do or your approach to work. 

So what can you do about this, if you fall into this trap? I would suggest first setting some creative boundaries, if you're likely to get too carried away. 

I read a really good article by Sally Fox from Lumen & Fox this week about the benefits of setting limitations and setting boundaries when you're creating. I'll link to that in the slide. 

A way you can set creative boundaries might be by looking at brand archetype type exercises to ground your work in a bit of reality. Nick Parker has a very good course about the 11 core voice types, which I'll link to as well. And that can help set some boundaries and some limitations, and ground your thinking a little bit. 

You can also invite honest feedback from people you trust. Perhaps colleagues. Or maybe not colleagues, because they’re internal. 

Peers, people who do the same sort of thing as you, and who move in the same professional circles. Trusted clients as well. And ask them honestly: do you think this reflects the reality of our brand from your experience? 

That can help you to work out if you're on the right track. Or if you're still not really being realistic about this. Because you want it to reflect who you are and to be authentic. 

I know that word’s been used to death, but for my line of work, it's really useful. So I'm reclaiming it. 

Just to sum up, the three biggest tone of voice mistakes I see at the “capturing and defining” stage are: the superficial tone of voice, the copycat tone of voice, and the wishful thinking tone of voice. 

And I hope I've given you some useful advice that you can put into practice if you're going to be developing your own tone of voice to help avoid these mistakes, or fix them. 

If you want to talk to me about anything in today's episode. If you have some feedback. If you have suggestions for things that you'd like me to cover in episodes coming up, there's my email address. 

There are also links to my social channels. If you want to follow me, if you want to chat with me there. 

Thanks for listening. And next week, we're going to be looking at what I put in a tone of voice guide. I'll see you then.