Tone of voice

The problems getting your tone of voice right can't fix

Developing a distinctive tone of voice for your brand has so many benefits. But, you need to have the basics of your business sorted first or you'll end up in a mess.

Felicity Wild

Developing a distinctive tone of voice for your brand and defining the big things you have to say brings so many benefits.

For starters, you’ll know exactly what (and how) to write. You’ll be able to clearly communicate the value of what you do and why people should care about it. And everyone on your team will write in a consistent voice, meaning fewer rounds of time-consuming and morale-sucking edits on the work they produce.

Briefing creatives is easier, onboarding new hires is quicker, and everyone across your organisation will be on the same page about how you present your business to the world. 

Not to mention, developing a brand’s tone of voice is a lot of fun.

Which is why the temptation is always strong to jump straight into the sexy stuff like this, and pass over some of the slightly less sexy foundational work.

Surely you can work those basics out later though, right? 

Well, maybe. But this approach can be problematic because unless you’re clear on the basics, you won’t get the best out of working with something like me. In fact, you’ll probably find it frustrating because I won’t be able to answer some of the big questions you’re stuck on.

So, what do you need to have in place before it’s time to think about your brand’s tone of voice and messaging framework? Here’s what I consider to be the bare minimum.

A definition of exactly what you do

Before you think about any aspect of your brand identity, you need to be able to explain in functional language and a few short sentences what your business does. And I mean precisely and specifically what it does. No generic vagaries allowed.

If you’re struggling with this exercise, a few prompts can help:

  • How would you describe your business to a five year old?
  • How would you describe your business to a friend down the pub?
  • How would you describe your business to your gran?

If these questions don’t elicit anything concrete it probably means there’s more background strategy work that needs to be done before it’s time to brand your business.

Your ideal customer

Before you try to work out how your brand speaks and what you have to say, you need to know who you’re talking to. And not just a rough idea of their demographics or their “buyer persona”—knowing what type of car your prospect is likely to drive doesn’t really help you develop a voice that’s going to resonate with them. 

I mean really know them, beyond what they like to buy, how much they earn or where they might live. What are their hopes? Ambitions? Fears? Challenges? And how does your business relate to these?

Getting into the heads and hearts of your ideal customers means you can develop a voice and messaging that’s going to connect with them in a way that matters. 

How do you do this? By getting out from behind your desk and into the world where your customers exist. Find out where they are and speak to them if you can. Once you’ve got a clear, fully-formed picture of them in your head—like a TV or film character—building a brand that will resonate with them comes naturally.

Your unique advantage

In her book Obsession: Building a Brand People Love from Day One, Emily Heyward—of Red Antler fame—tells us great branding starts from the inside and works its way out:

“You need to understand what’s special about the business and then figure out how to take what’s special and elevate it to a story with emotional resonance.”  

An out-there colour palette is not what makes it special. A slick logo is not what makes it special. A fresh tone of voice is not what makes it special. 

The thing your business does that no one else does—that’s what makes it special. And you need to know what this is before you develop all of that other stuff.

Again, some prompts to help you pin down your point(s) of differentiation:

  • What solution does your business provide that didn’t exist before?
  • What would the world lose if your business closed tomorrow?
  • Think of your biggest competitor—what do you beat them on (value? speed? quality? innovation?)

Similar to defining what your business does, if you’re having trouble answering these questions it’s time to go back to basics with strategy before you get stuck into branding. 

Need some strategy help?

If you’ve realised you need to get the basics sorted before you brand your business, Tone of Voice Nerd works in partnership with management consultant Co:definery—they do the strategy, and then we do the words. It’s well worth a chat, especially considering the discipline of positioning is changing fast.

Felicity Wild
Founder and chief tone of voice nerd

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Hi, I'm Felicity Wild

Founder & Chief Tone of Voice Nerd

I started Tone of Voice Nerd because too many of my clients were investing in vague tone of voice guides that didn’t help their team, or freelance copywriters like me, write good copy.  

I knew I could do a better job and produce tone of voice guides—or brand voice blueprints, to use their fancy name—people would actually find useful.  

They're designed to give you clarity on how to speak to customers, the confidence to communicate who you are as a business and the tools to present the value of what you do to the world.

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