Let me start by being pretty blunt: much of the brand guidelines I have seen are very poor when it comes to tone of voice guidance. They often say things like ‘write in an engaging way’ and ‘write as you speak’ and leave it at that.
What we writers really need is a much clearer steer on an organisation’s tone of voice. So let’s look at some of the specific choices you can make that will change the tone of voice of your writing. I’ll look at five things in this edition, and there will be more next time.
Using don’t instead of do not may not sound like a big deal, but in a piece of writing of 500 words there could be several opportunities for contractions. If you use contractions every time you will generally have a softer, more personal tone than if you don’t.
Here is a before and after example:
Before (no contractions): Volunteers find that it is not difficult to get a lot from the experience and they are often involved in fun activities. Please do not worry about being left alone as we have made sure you will get lots of support.
After (with contractions): Volunteers find that it’s not difficult to get a lot from the experience and they’re often involved in fun activities. Please don’t worry about being left alone as we’ve made sure you’ll get lots of support.
I suppose sometimes a case could be made for not using contractions, but personally my default position is that contractions are fine – and they rarely, if ever, make writing look sloppy or unprofessional, which is a concern that some people have.
Cutting down on words
Turning a 150-word piece into a 100-word piece often softens a tone of voice because it often includes taking out phrases that sound stuffy and formal in favour of shorter equivalents. If you use due to the fact that instead of because, or at the present time instead of now you will end up with something that has a harder, more formal feel than the shorter alternatives.
Some organisations never want to use the word you, preferring instead to say our clients and the like. Generally, using you will soften the tone of voice. But watch out, because it can be overdone and writing often needs a blend of the two approaches.
Jargon has its place in peer-to-peer communication. If I am sending an email to colleagues involved in search engine optimisation I will write SEO. It would in fact look very odd to spell out the full phrase.
But too often, people write for customers or other stakeholders who won’t get the jargon. When we do this, we can make our writing (and our organisation) appear elitist and unfriendly.
Just look at this sentence intended for parents of 14-16 year-old children:
The activity delivers aspects of work related learning and helps to develop and evidence key skills and enterprise capability.
The word evidence is not normally used in that way. I suspect that enterprise capability is a term that the organisation writing the sentence uses a lot, but it’s not something that every reader will understand straight away, or even at all.
Passive vs active voice
Although there’s nothing wrong with using the passive voice, in general it seems that the passive voice makes our writing more approachable:
Passive voice: Innovative products and services are offered by our company.
Active voice: Our company offers innovative products and services.
More next time...
I’ve started with five fairly obvious influences on tone of voice. Next time, I’ll get deeper into the subject and draw on examples from organisations with varying approaches.