What I put in a tone of voice guide

What do I put in a tone of voice guide?

The short and unhelpful answer to that question is: it depends on who the guide is for. Their level of knowledge and writing skills. The problems they've approached me to solve. The quality of their brand strategy and existing information. Their budget and timeframe (with the best will in the world — a lemonade budget isn't going to get you champagne).

Watch along for the longer and more helpful answer as I break down my tone of voice guide essentials and good-to-haves.


Hi there, welcome to episode four of brand voice notes. Thanks for joining me again. If we haven't met before — my name is Felicity Wild, and I'm a brand voice messaging specialist. And today I'm going to talk about what I put in a tone of voice guide. 

Now in my work, I actually do tone of voice and messaging guides. So they cover what you say as a brand and how to say it. But for the purpose of this series, we haven't really looked at messaging yet. So today, I'm just going to focus on the tone of voice part of my guides and what I include.

The short and not so helpful answer to what I include in a tone of voice guide is: it depends on who the guide is for. It depends on their level of knowledge and the writing skills, and the problems that they've approached me to solve. 

They could be a founder who is a really compelling public speaker, but then when they turn to writing, that spark gets lost and they need a tone of voice guide to help them channel some of that speaking energy and that really distinct voice, and have the confidence to apply that in writing. 

Or it could be for a big, multi-national organisation, that have a lot of different people in different countries writing for their brand. A lot of them perhaps writing in English as their second language, and they need a really clear guide to make sure that everyone stays consistent. Those two guides are going to look very different. 

It also depends on the existing information that's there. An organisation might have a really solid, well articulated strategy, And this tone of voice guide that we're writing is really just the cherry on top that focuses on the copy side of things. 

Or (often) an organisation doesn't really have a solid, formalised strategy there. So maybe the guide needs to answer some of these fundamental questions about the brand, so that everyone's on the same page, and they can move forward with a kind of united voice. 

Also, I run my own business. So what I put in a guide depends on the client's budget and the timeframe. With the best will in the world, if you have a lemonade budget, I'm going to struggle to give you champagne. I’m flexible, and I'll do my best to help you. But we have to be realistic with the constraints there.

A longer and hopefully more useful answer to the question is that I think there are essentials that should go in every tone of voice guide, And then there are good to haves. They're good to include if time and money allow and also to help you tackle some specific problems that the client might have approached you about. 

So the essentials first. I think it's useful to start a tone of voice guide with a brand statement, or a manifesto, or a narrative. Now those are all different flavours of kind of the same thing. And in a forthcoming episode, I will talk about the differences between these things and what they mean. But for today, we'll just say it's some sort of overarching brand statement, demonstrating the brand's worldview about who they are, what they do and how they do it.

 And then from there, I think it's good to move into the specifics and break down the brand’s personality. Usually, this is three personality traits, perhaps four, but I like to keep it tight and keep it to three, if possible.

And for each personality trait, I explain what it means, and specifically what it means in the context of the brand. And how this is expressed through copy.

I then think it’s useful to include some sample copy. This usually is tailored to what the client’s told me that they struggle with. So they've told me that their about page has never really reflected them, I'll include some sample copy, showing how they can make their about page align more to their new voice. 

If they've told me they really struggle to strike the right tone on LinkedIn, I'll do some before and after LinkedIn posts to demonstrate their new tone of voice in action, and how they can write LinkedIn posts going forward.

I also like to include a word and phrase index — good and bad. So phrases and words to sprinkle into the copy to strike the right tone. And words and phrases to avoid that will be jarring, that won't work with the tone of voice that we're looking to create. 

And then there's also writing guidelines, which fall into two categories. There's voice specific writing guidelines. And then there's general good practice copywriting guidelines. What you choose to include depends on who you're writing the guide for and their level of skills. Obviously, if they're a copywriter, you're not going to waste your time doing the general good practice copywriting guide, because they'll already know that. So it's just the voice specific parts of the guide.

Moving on to the good-to-haves — some of these were borderline essential. But if I had to whittle a guide down to the very, very bare essentials, that's what I put in the essentials. And then here are all the good-to-haves. 

So I've put audience here and I'm not talking about audience profiles in terms of demographic information because that's perhaps not really that useful. It's more in terms of your audience and the problems they have, how you solve them, and how you want to make them feel when they interact with your brand. That's all really good information to have here, you might also want to include voice of customer research, if that's something that you do (which I'd recommend).

Competitors and sector —here we're looking not so much at just what your competitors are saying, it's looking at opportunities for you to distinguish yourself and be different. 

So if there’s a word or phrase that your main competitor “owns” you'll want to put that here as something to avoid. And then what you can say instead, that will fit with your tone of voice and then differentiate yourself from them. 

It's also sometimes good to put in information about the sector, like maybe there are some tropes that have been done to death that you really want to avoid and you want to stand out from, or maybe there are some conventions that you do need to fit in with. Because sometimes it's not all about standing out. Sometimes you also need to make people feel comfortable. So that's a thing to think about there, too. 

Sometimes, a section on technical language is helpful. I know jargon is a controversial subject, I don't personally think it's to be avoided at all costs. I think you have to think very carefully about the context. And including a language section on technical language and conventions around how to use it can be really helpful to overcome this challenge. 

Accessible language is really important. And I'd suggest including that, particularly if it's a guide for a big organisation with a lot of people who perhaps don't know very much about copywriting. It can be very helpful to include accessible language. 

And then the “how we talk about…” section. It could be how we talk about our products, how we talk about the topic of sustainability, how we talk about the topic of equality.

This is really helpful to include if there’s a contentious or slightly prickly subject that you want to get right. You can keep everyone on the right track and make sure you have some boilerplate copy that people can lift out to keep things consistent.

So that was my essentials for a tone of voice guide, and my good-to-haves for tone of voice guide. Thank you so much for listening. If you have any requests for things that you'd like me to cover, if you want to have a chat about today's episode or chat in general, there's my contact information. And I'll be back in two weeks time where we're going to start looking at messaging. So thank you. I'll see you then.