What is tone of voice?

There's plenty of information out there about the fun, sexy work of capturing a brand's tone of voice. But not so much detail on what tone of voice actually *is*. Sooo, let me walk you through my unsexy but important definition of tone of voice. And then we can get on to the fun stuff.


Hi, welcome to the first episode of brand voice notes. I'm so happy you're here. 

Before we get started, I want to quickly introduce myself. My name is Felicity Wild. I'm a brand voice and messaging specialist, and my company is called tone of voice note for what will quickly become obvious reasons. 

I started the company just over a year ago because after 10 years as a copywriter, I’d started to get tired of working with tone of voice guides that I didn't feel much use. 

They weren't helping me write good copy for my clients. And they certainly weren't helping my clients write their own copy either. So, I thought I could do a better job — which is hopefully what I've been doing. 

With brand voice notes, I want to share with you some insights into my work, the way that I think about things and the way that I do things. To deepen your understanding of the topic, to share ideas, give you inspiration, and to help you do better tone of voice and messaging work too. 

So, I thought we'd start right at the beginning with looking at what tone of voice actually is. 

But before we get stuck in, there’s the perennial problem of semantics to address. 

I call it tone of voice, you might also have seen tone and voice, verbal branding, verbal identity, brand language strategy, combinations of all of those and some I'm sure I've missed off the list too. 

We're all really talking about the same thing here. We're perhaps just approaching it from slightly different angles, and also wanting to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. 

For me, it's not so important what we call it. The important things are that we're doing good work, we're helping our clients, we're solving their problems, and we're moving their business forward. 

I just wanted to get that out of the way before we proceed. 

When I was thinking about how to start this series, I was worried that looking at what tone of voice is was too basic, and I’d just be adding to the noise. So I had a little look at what other people had written about it, and the results were a little mixed. 

This is from an article from SEMrush (the link is in this slide):

What is tone of voice? Tone of voice is how a brand communicates and connects with its audience through messaging and customer interactions. It helps businesses differentiate themselves from the competition and communicate their brand values to their audience. 

Now, that's all true. But to me, that is more of the function of tone of voice or what it does. It's not the definition or what tone of voice actually is. 

Other articles I felt were more accurate. This is from MailChimp (again, the link is in the slide): 

What we're talking about with tone of voice. At its simplest, your brand's tone of voice is your personality and how you sound to other people. It determines how you speak to customers online, on packaging, on social media, everywhere. 

I think as a basic, easy to understand definition, this is great. 

The problem is, the article then really quickly moves on to the fun, sexy stuff of capturing your tone of voice and putting together a guide. 

And that's always the temptation because that work is really fun. But I feel for the purpose of this series, it would be useful to take a few minutes to consider what tone of voice actually is and what we're talking about. 

So I've put together this flowchart to show you how I think about tone of voice. 

It's important to stress this is how I think about it. I know other people have different methods and different approaches. But I thought you might find my insights interesting here.

For me, it starts with your core brand voice — or you might call it your brand personality. And this is influenced by lots of different things like brand strategy, business strategy, corporate culture, brand values, target audiences, the people that make up your organisation, your vision (the big thing you're working towards), your mission (the steps that you take every day to achieve that big vision), and your market position (whether you're a heritage brand that's been around for a while, or maybe you're a new challenger brand or you're creating a new category altogether).

All of these things are linked to and influence and shape your brand voice. 

And there are many other things I could have put on that list as well. The point I'm making is that it's all linked and interconnected and influenced by each other. 

Tone of voice or brand voice is not some kind of fluffy, nice to have thing that sits on the periphery. It's integral, it's linked to all of this. And it's really important. 

I usually define this core brand voice with three or four unique characteristics. And unique is the important word here. We're not talking about being friendly, because everyone wants to be friendly. Or professional, who doesn't want to sound professional. Expert, who doesn't want to sound like that as well. 

I'm talking about unique characteristics that aren't givens — that can help you build and shape a recognisable identity. 

When you speak to the outside world, this unique voice passes through lots of filters like the purpose and the aim of any particular piece of communication and the channel or medium you're using (whether it's social media, TV adverts, letters to individual customers. There's your target audience (who you're speaking to, their expectations, their preferences, what they think of your brand, if indeed they think of you at all). The market conditions (think about the current cost of living crisis and how that's influenced how brands communicate with the public), the political climate (you always need to be sensitive to that) and culture.

All these outside factors influence how you speak as a brand. And then your tone of voice is the tone that you use in each different piece of communication. 

The real challenge of this work is that your tone of voice flexes and adapts, but it must always remain true to your core brand voice. 

So if one of your core characteristics is energised, your tone of voice in any piece of communication will always be on that energised scale. It's never going to slip into being laid back or relaxed. 

Tone of voice is expressed through word choice (the words that you use) grammar, syntax (which is sentence structure) and style choices. Like how you write headings, how you write calls to action, microcopy, all of those different choices. 

I like to think of it a bit like how we as humans communicate. The way that I'm speaking to you now is a little different to how I speak to my friends at the pub, or how I speak to my parents, or when I had a boss how I'd speak to them. It's all true to me. It's just all different facets of me, and slightly different ways of expressing myself. But they're all true to the core. 

And that's how I think of it.

I hope this is useful for you to understand what I'm talking about with tone of voice. 

There are my social links if you want to follow me, my contact details if you want to chat or if you have questions. 

Thank you so much for listening. I'm really honoured that you've joined me. Next week or in two weeks time I mean, we're going to be talking about the business case for tone of voice and I really hope you join me then. 

Thank you.