Invisible, not inaudible: tone of voiceposted 09 July 2012 by Owen Gregory
There's no mystery about the value of presenting a cohesive and consistent visual identity for a product or business. But a well-placed logo, attractive colours, striking typography that displays informative and accurate copy within a compelling layout can all be scuppered by the wrong tone of voice.
For some years now, we've been told to approach communication with our audiences as if it were a conversation; we have to be approachable and informal, as though we're chatting in person. Take the example of Glorious!, a company making soups and sauces for the UK market, which strikes a good balance between exuberance and straight information. It's possible to go too far, though, and step over the line into wackaging. Trying to humanize a water bill, for instance. It can also be difficult to identify and encourage the qualities that make a website's tone of voice authentic and appropriate. What you think your tone of voice is and what your tone of voice is can be different.
Tone of voice is tightly bound up in the words you use to communicate with your audience. It influences both what you say and how you say it; we wouldn't expect Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to sound like MOO – and we'd be right to be suspicious of hearing from Little HMRC the tax robot after submitting a VAT return. Finding an appropriate tone of voice for your website is something Robert Mills explores in chapter 19 of A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible. He provides some ideas about the questions you should ask yourself when working out a suitable tone of voice: what's the personality you're trying to convey? How formal or chatty should it be? How friendly, impartial, funny or serious?
As a copy editor for Five Simple Steps, I'm less concerned about tone of voice (though that's important) than about, simply, voice; that is, an author can be funny, informative, cynical, authoritative, excited and furious in the space of a few paragraphs, but still be consistently themselves. After all, we experience and express in different ways the full gamut of human emotions and feelings. Among my copy-editing duties is helping authors best be themselves in the words they choose to write.
The authors of the Five Simple Steps books I've worked with possess quite distinct personalities, obviously. Jon Hicks isn't Andy Clarke, and neither of them is Brian Suda or Dan Zambonini (and I'm sure they, their families and we are all grateful for that). So while they might exhibit similar tones of voice in particular passages, each of their authorial voices remains uniquely theirs.
The best writers have voices that are recognisable, difficult to confuse with others, individual. Most of us write in rather neutral modes, the result of schooling based on essays for homework and examinations. We rarely have the confidence or affinity with words to stretch ourselves and carry our readers further than the task at hand requires. That's reasonable, perhaps, but it's neither daring nor imaginative. Lack of a compelling voice never stopped an author from achieving success, of course.
Businesses and brands can't surpass mere tone of voice and establish a true voice of their own; they aren't people, after all, and copy to sell insurance or widgets or books doesn't need to (and shouldn't) aspire to the condition of literature. That doesn't make establishing and maintaining an appropriate tone of voice a futile endeavour – far from it. It's key to building a rapport with customers and developing a relationship based on trust and meeting expectations. Modify your tone of voice for different situations: error messages; product descriptions; calls to action; the small print. Different registers can add up to a fuller experience for the audience. Be playful if needs be, forthright if you must, and I hear that trying a little tenderness can work wonders. As long as you're consistent within the bounds and context of what your website's trying to achieve, you'll get closer to finding your voice.