Choosing your words
As you write, you are constantly making choices about the words you use.
(Or: while you communicate, you are continually deciding upon vocabulary options.)
In many cases, the choice you make will determine the level of formality or informality of what you write. Will you use currently or now? Will you use collaborate or work together? Will you use positive feedback or great response?
An example often mentioned (so hey, I’ll do it too) is that MailChimp tells its staff to write ‘So sorry for the hassle’ rather than ‘We apologise for the delay’. Even in a small sentence, it’s clear that using sorry and hassle rather than apologise and delay changes the tone of voice and, as a result, gives the reader a very different perception of the company.
A tip for improving as a writer in general, and for fine-tuning your written tone of voice, is to use a thesaurus again and again as you write. Look at the alternative words available, try out different combinations and see which words best suit your message and your brand.
Hang on a minute, surely there are no options about spelling. There is just one correct way to spell, right?
Well, no. There isn’t a central authority for spelling in the English language. Dictionary publishers make their own decisions about spelling and that can lead to some interesting dilemmas.
Most professional writers will use all right and consider alright a very informal spelling. Indeed, the folks at Oxford Dictionaries say that ‘alright is still regarded as being unacceptable in formal writing’.
But they also say: ‘There is no logical reason for insisting that all right should be written as two words rather than as alright, when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted.’
Sometimes this lack of clarity over spelling has an effect on tone of voice. Using u instead of you would horrify my lawyer clients. But it might be just right - in places - for a young B2C brand. And I predict that one day even the Oxford English Dictionary will accept it: in fact it already lists u as an informal alternative to you.
One of the problems with slang is that it might be perfectly normal to some people and completely meaningless to others. The MTV website says that 'Geordie Shore features people getting mortal'. Do you know what that means?
You must keep sight of who the audience is when you are writing, and consider how that affects your use of slang. If you don’t know your audience very well, try to consult with someone who does if you want to use slang.
I often write content aimed at IT experts, but I’m not an IT specialist. So if I use some slang to add informality and colour to a piece I check with some techies that the slang has an authentic ring to it.
I have put ‘rules’ in inverted commas because many of the things we are told are rules are in fact not rules at all. And yes, that does mean the ‘rule’ that you can’t start a sentence with and.
Sometimes sticking to ‘correct’ grammar adds an unwelcome level of formality to writing. You might know when to use whom rather than who but if using whom makes your writing sound stuffy, do you really want to use it?
(By the way, I cover grammar and grammar myths on my Copywriting Skills Development Programme.)
Objective vs subjective
The use of subjectivity can play a big role in giving your writing (and therefore your organisation) a personality. So if your chosen tone of voice is all about having a brand personality, it’s something to consider.
Here are two approaches to describing a sofa:
This two-seater sofa has an especially soft fabric that you will love.
We love the fabric on this sofa. In fact, we wish our clothes could be this soft!
The second version has a strong personal opinion and in doing so adds some personality to the communication. If you are struggling to get a personality across, have a go at using some subjectivity in your writing: it may be just what you need.
I hope that across these posts on tone of voice you have a good list of some of the variables to consider. There are hundreds or thousands of other articles, blogs and guides out there on the subject too, so invest some time in further reading if this is a topic of particular interest.