Tone of voice - how not to sound like everyone else

Profile picture for user barb.mosher By Barb Mosher Zinck July 11, 2019
Why how you say something matters as much as what you say in marketing.


A few weeks ago, I was talking to a UX expert, and he told me that many of the tech startups are creating very similar web experiences, making it hard to tell them apart. Creating a brand with a unique look and feel and experience is critical to making your brand stand out among a crowded market. But it’s not just look and feel that’s important, it’s also tone of voice and that is equally challenging. Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners argues: 

A compelling voice will multiply the impact of your marketing.

When you think about voice, you typically think about pitch, speed, tone, and volume. But with marketing content - all you have is tone (I would suggest that to some extent you also have speed, but that comes hand-in-hand with tone) and oddly enough, most brands don’t take a lot of time thinking about it. Kessler adds: 

Throughout my entire career in marketing (most of it in B2B), I’ve been baffled by how rarely tone of voice is used to make brands more approachable, memorable, likeable and buy-from-able.

Why tone of voice is important

What’s the most important thing a brand needs to do today? Kessler suggests it’s to earn trust. And trust is hard to earn these days. Consumers don’t believe brands have their best interests in mind, and they worry about what their personal information is being used for.

This mistrust in the brand includes mistrust in marketing. Kessler argues that brands earn trust through authenticity, transparency, and simplicity, and to do that, marketing needs to create a voice that is open, simple, and conversational:

For marketing content (unless it’s video with a person), all of these channels [facial expressions, body language, gestures, etc] are closed. All we have is tone of voice: how the sender is speaking to us. And because we only have this one, thin filament to carry all this important information about intention/motivation/character, the reader/viewer/listener values it disproportionately.

It’s not surprising that getting tone of voice right is hard. It wasn’t that long ago that brands spoke in a corporate voice that was all commanding and all-knowing, speaking at customers. In fact, in some cases, you wouldn’t hear any real voice at all. Marketing also didn’t think much about creating a consistent voice across platforms, mainly because the idea of cross-channel or omnichannel experiences didn’t exist.

Although marketing has come a long way, we still see much of that traditional style of voice (or lack of) in marketing material, including website copy (especially website copy), product marketing material and even blog posts.

So how do you find your tone of voice?

There is a lot of advice out there about finding your tone of voice, and it’s all good advice. Kessler provides eleven things you can do to create a strong tone of voice in his article, including things like developing a voice strategy statement, actively managing it, using the right amount of jargon and more.

He also suggests identifying 3-4 base notes that are foundational to the way you write your content. Ann Handley suggests the same approach. She said to pick three words that describe your brand, making sure they are real and practical.

These words should represent your brand values, how you want your customers and the community to think about you, what’s special about your products, and the way you do business. Handley has some suggestions:

Mask the logo on your site. Do you sound different, unique—like yourself? Or do you sound like everyone else… including your competitors?

Kessler advises adding in some accent notes. These are words help you apply your tone of voice to the context of your audience or situation. You should put these words in a style guide, and demonstrate how the accent notes help writers apply the base notes (words) in context:

The goal with base notes and accents isn’t to have an identical voice everywhere. It’s more like consistent variety. Same speaker, slightly different tones for different situations.

Another important thing you should consider is the expectations of your target audiences. You may choose a tone of voice that you believe represents your company and your brand, but what if it’s not the tone of voice your audience expects?

My take

What if everyone’s tone is conversational?

Develop a tone of voice that is conversational, casual, simple, mostly positive and helpful - basically how you might talk to people. Carry that tone of voice through all your content. But will a conversational tone of voice make you stand out if everyone is doing the exact same thing?

Tone of voice is only one piece of the puzzle and Kessler nails it perfectly. “Story X Voice = Impact.”

The right tone of voice is essential, and it needs to be one that reaches your customers. But the real key to reaching customers is sharing the right stories told in the right way. If you aren’t sharing the stories that impact customers, then it doesn’t really matter how good your voice is. However, it also goes that if your stories are told in a way that is boring, rigid or robotic, and inconsistent, then they won’t have the impact you expect.