In this episode we’re going to be talking about a particularly important aspect of your copywriting – the tone of voice. Did you know the tone of voice will influence how effective your copywriting is? Well it does. And now you know!
Want to know more?
Tune in to learn:
- What tone of voice is and what it isn’t – the critical elements you have to consider
- How to develop your own unique tone of voice
- Our favourite examples of a unique tone of voice
- Top tips on nailing different tones in your copywriting
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Examples of cool tones of voice:
- Play – Case study
- Wovii – Case study
- Method cleaners
- Dollar Shave Club
- Mailchimp on Twitter
Read the transcript
Belinda: Welcome to the Hot Copy Podcast with your hosts Belinda Weaver and Kate Toon. In each 20 minute episode we’ll be sharing the secrets of successful copywriters including copywriting tips, shortcuts, writing resources, interviews and laughs, all focused on helping you to become a better copywriter. I’m Belinda Weaver and this is my co-host Kate Toon.
Belinda: Today we’re going to be talking about the tone of voice you use in your copywriting, how the tone of voice you use influences how effective your copywriting is, and how to capture the right tone of voice for your customers.
As we’ve done in other podcasts, I think it’s a good idea to start off making sure we all know what we’re talking about and that is what is tone of voice?
The tone of voice you write in is not so much what you say as how you say it. It’s the personality and the flavour of your copywriting. Now, it could be honest and direct, humble, it could be cheeky and funny, it could be scientific and clinical, but the right tone of voice I think makes any copy more readable because it fits the content and it fits the business and it fits the audience, and it connects them all.
So Kate, do you agree or have a different definition?
Kate: No, I think that’s perfect. It’s like giving your copy personality, whatever personality that may be, and I think it’s super-important. We’re all competing for our space and for our customers, competing for new business, and every marketplace these days is crowded unfortunately, so we need to be very clear about who we are and how we talk.
There are different ways we can communicate this, we do that through how we look, through our design, we do it through how we sound, which is our tone of voice, and we do it through how we behave, which is how we work with people. Often people get very into their visual identity, “I must have a logo, what are my colours, what typography shall I use?” But our verbal identity, our tone of voice or our personality is a crucial part of how we connect with people and our customers.
That’s my spiel, what do you think?
Belinda: I think it’s absolutely spot on. I think we both write in quite conversational tones of voices, so I think we’re really on the same page about this. We cannot emphasise how important it is because if you don’t sound different in any way, shape or form, no business will stand out.
Kate: That’s it and I think also – and we’re going to talk about this a little later on – it brings more clarity to what you’re selling or what services you’re offering and it makes all your copy more consistent, which then makes people get your brand and your business quicker. They understand who you are and what you do easier because you’re the same; you have the same tone no matter whether it’s on your website or DM, or wherever it may be.
Belinda: So how about we go through some shortcuts and processes here, how do you start nutting out the tone of voice for a client? What’s your process?
Kate: It’s not easy, I’ll be honest. My first point is to send the client a couple of page brief and I’ll ask them the question, “What is your tone of voice?” and often they’ll just put a random selection of words, some of them are tone of voice related and some of them aren’t, but often they really struggle.
So when I actually speak to them on the phone I’ll ask them questions around the subject and say things like, “If your business was a person what type of person would they be?” or “What words have previous customers used to describe your business?” And sometimes that gives them a bit of a steer and helps them work it out.
Belinda: That’s a really great question, what words have previous customers used to describe them? That’s a really good one. People should steal that, that’s definitely a good one.
Kate: Only if they’re good words of course.
Belinda: Yes, of course! [both laugh] I used to do something similar, I used to invest quite a bit of time in the brief working through what the brand personality or the business personality was and I used to try and get them to nail maybe three or four words that encapsulated the persona of their company. A lot of businesses just have never thought about their business in that way, so it can be quite tough but it’s a very important conversation to have.
I also like to imagine a real person is talking to me and so I find it easier to write in a certain tone of voice. Once I have a couple of words to cling onto, I imagine that as a real person talking to me.
Kate: Yes, that’s a classic trick and it’s often used in a lot of creative writing. So if you’re trying to write dialogue in books and plays, most creative writing tutors will say try and imagine somebody who’s saying that, whether it be somebody you’ve met or somebody off the telly, and think how would they talk and what words would they use? So yes, that’s a great way of doing it as well, I agree.
Belinda: One of the things I did find though is clients sometimes find the process of defining this kind of persona that we’re talking about quite difficult, but also there’s a certain amount of confusion between personality characteristics and maybe the values of the business and how that plays out in a tone of voice, because they’re not really the same thing.
Kate: Yes, to be honest, even I find that a bit of a struggle sometimes. Say the brand wants to come across as knowledgeable, that’s one of the brand values – would that be a brand value or would that be a tone of voice? You see, even I’m a bit confused about that. What do you think?
Belinda: See, I think that would be a brand value, that would be a personality trait.
Kate: Yes, absolutely.
Belinda: So you’d have to say, “What does knowledgeable sound like?”
Kate: Yes, totally. Okay, cool, I get it then. But, for example, say you want to come across as sounding honest, one way of doing that would be to use plain language, no fancy words and no jargon; maybe to put some statistics and stuff through your copy so you’re proving that you are telling the truth; and maybe using social proof, like testimonials, that back up your claims.
So yes, like you said, you’ve got brand values but then it’s important to say, “How does that brand value sound? How would a person who had that attribute or that value talk? And how does that play out in the copy?”
Belinda: So Kate, I know you often work for big corporate clients and big brands. Do they ever have this kind of stuff written down anywhere as part of branding guidelines or do you have to do it from scratch each time?
Kate: Yes, most of the big banks and things like that will have tone of voice and brand guidelines that they’ll send through. Some of them do a really good job of it, so they’ll have, “This is how we speak, this is how we don’t speak” and you’ve got real life examples, which is so helpful to a writer. But also often I’ll get the job of helping a client define their tone of voice, I’ve done that for a few clients and, again, it’s about taking that word, like “knowledgeable”, and then saying how that works out in the copy.
I’ll include in the show notes a link to some assets on my Kate Toon website where I’ve taken four brand values and I’ve then worked out how that would translate in copy terms, and they’re downloadable things that you can print off and stick on your wall.
Belinda: I love the little industry jargon you just threw in there, “assets”. So for anyone who doesn’t know, an asset would be what, a document, a download?
Kate: Oh my God, did I use assets? I didn’t mean too. It’s a downloadable thingy, is that better? A PDF.
Belinda: Yes, yes. Grab your downloadable thingy on how to translate tone of voice [Kate laughs] on Kate’s website. [laughs] In your experience Kate, did you ever get any contradiction between maybe the tone of voice that people were asking for and the rest of their brand? I know I did sometimes.
Kate: Yes and I think you get a lot of contradiction as well between what the client asks for and what they really want. So they’ll say they want chatty and then you do chatty and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to sound like that”.
So yes, definitely and the only way you can prove it to the client is to write it out and to let them see, “This is what that brand you value is going to translate to; this is how that sounds. Do you really like it? Is that really how you want to sound?”
Belinda: Yes, did you ever do any little snippets of copy to say, “Do you want to have a look at this first?”
Kate: Yes, that’s what I always do. We’ll talk more in this when we go through processes, but the first draft that I send through to the client is just really an outline and I generally try and write a hundred words of copy in the chosen tone of voice for them and say, “Look, this is how I’m going to write the rest of the copy so say now whether you like it or not”.
And sometimes what I do is I hype it up a little bit, so I take it to the max a little bit. So if they’ve said, “We want it to be really colloquial and slangy because we’re talking to teens and we really want to sound like we’re one of their mates”. So you do that but you take it a bit further than maybe you would and then they go, “Oh God no, can you pull this back, can you pull that back?” and that then helps you realise how they really want to sound.
Belinda: Yes, that’s a really good tip because you do not want to write ten pages of a website and then have them go, “Oh no, actually, we don’t want to sound like that at all”
Belinda: Because it’s really tough to change the tone of voice once you’ve heard that little voice in your head. [laughs]
Kate: So I’ve got a question for you now. I think one thing that fresh copywriters and even old hands can struggle with is separating their tone of voice, how they write their website or their blogs, from how the client writes and they struggle to find a range of tones they need or they’re matching their own voice, do you know what I’m saying?
Kate: Did you have that problem?
Belinda: I didn’t have that problem and that’s basically because I was always lucky enough to have a pretty wide range of types of clients.
So a client might come to me and say, “We really love your website and we love your blogs, so we want to work with you because you seem awesome”. [laughs] No, but, “We’re a financial advisor, we don’t want to sound like you do but we’d like to work with you”. So I often had that kind of situation and I got to write in a lot of different styles and tones of voices.
So I ended up putting together a little guide for myself on different tones of voices and how they would play out. Like a conversational tone of voice would use more contractions, a more formal tone of voice wouldn’t; shorter sentences in a conversational tone of voice versus longer sentences. So I have a little guide for myself and one thing I do in my copywriting masterclass is get students to write in five or six different tones of voices so they can really see how difficult it is, because it is important to be versatile.
I’m sure you have this Kate, clients will come to you and say, “We love how you sound, can we sound like that too?” but you can’t bank on that.
Kate: No, totally. I think that’s a great exercise that you do on your course. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do something like that and have it marked. I guess I did in agency life because my creative director would say, “Hey, that’s just so wrong, that brand would never sound like that”, but that sounds like a really useful exercise.
People will sometimes come to me and say, “We like how you sound so we want to sound like you” that does happen and, funnily enough, it’s often insurance brands and IT brands that want to sound less dry and less boring so that’s why they’ve come to me. But, as you said, you can’t just write like yourself all the time, you wouldn’t be a very talented copywriter if you couldn’t switch hats and change the way that you write. So I think it’s very important to understand that.
Belinda: And often I think when you’re starting out you don’t really have a clear idea of what your voice is, so maybe it’s easier to be versatile at the beginning. [laughs]
Kate: Yes. I think it’s like we said in a previous podcast, I can’t even remember which one, but that’s why it’s so important to write your own stuff as much as you can. Whenever there’s downtime write a blog post, write good social media updates, send out good emails and have your tone there so you can discover what your tone of voice is and be clear on that, and then you can differentiate it from your clients when you need to.
Belinda: Hmmm, I’ve definitely become more confident and it’s a fairly obvious thing to say, I’ve become more confident as I’ve become more experienced, but I’ve become more relaxed and comfortable with my authentic tone of voice. [Kate laughs] I think when I started out I didn’t want to be controversial and I wanted to appear professional and it was just a bit bland.
I think that’s kind of how everyone starts, but the more you write the more you find your own way of saying things. And that’s really good for your own marketing, but that’s also what you have to find in your clients.
Kate: Yes, I agree.
Belinda: So Kate, I think we should talk about some examples of brands that we love the tone of voice of, just so people can understand some variations of tone of voice. So I thought I’d get started and it’s a bit sad, but I want to talk about cleaning. [Kate laughs]
One of my favourite brands is Method Cleaning Supplies and I chose them purely on their tone of voice. So I’m in the grocery store and I’m choosing between two different natural Earth-friendly cleaners, because that’s how I choose my products, and one of them on the back had a unicorn and it said things like, “We put the hurt on dirt”, “Powerful non-toxic cleaning is not a myth, we’re still working on the unicorns”.
It was that line with the picture of the unicorn that just completely sold me. It was very different to all the other products and it really tuned into the kind of thing that I like, it was a bit quirky and it was quite fun. And I think that’s the power of tone of voice, it can help someone choose between two brands right at that moment.
Kate: Yes, I think that’s exactly it and unicorns aren’t going to be everybody’s thing, but they’ve obviously understood that the kind of audience that’s going to go after their products is going to love unicorns and that cheeky attitude. So they’ve worked that out really well.
I’ve got an example but it’s one of my own, is that a bit bad? My example would be a brand called Wovii. They make towels, I know towels aren’t particularly sexy either, you know, cleaning products and towels, so if you can make cleaning products and towels engaging then you really are on a winner.
So this was a towel brand but a towel with a difference, it’s got unique qualities – I know I shouldn’t use “unique” but it’s not your average towel, put it that way. The client did that thing that we both love where they came and they said, “Look, I want to be quirky, I want to be unusual and I want to be different” so we really tried to work that through the tone of voice.
One little example was when we’re coming to describe how lightweight the towel is, because it’s really light and easy to fit in your gym bag or your beach bag, and we could have said, “It’s 364g” which is kind of meaningless anyway because what weighs that? And we could have come up with an example that was much more boring, but instead we wanted to give it context and we wanted to make it quirky.
So we ended up saying that it weighted about as much as small hamster, which is random and odd but it’s kind of in line with your unicorn thing. It’s going to make someone smile and maybe the kind of customer we want will smile at that. So that’s just one example but I think that worked really well and I loved writing for that client because they really embraced that quirky tone of voice completely.
Belinda: Yes and what we said earlier, to have a different tone of voice it doesn’t have to be quirky, but when you can find those little moments that can make your business stand apart the customers that will really identify with it will choose you over someone else.
Kate: That’s it. Rather than being vanilla to everybody and everybody feeling kind of, “Yes, they’re okay” or indifferent to you, I think it’s better to have raving fans. So some people who maybe don’t want your brand well fine, but the ones that really do really love you. Tone of voice can really help with that.
Belinda: I agree. My next example is not actually for a product that I use at all, it’s Dollar Shave Club and I have to admit I’ve only ever watched YouTube clips of their ads.
It’s a subscription service, I think you pay a dollar a month or something and you get sent razors. I’m clearly not the target market, it’s really, really blokey. But it’s not Zoo magazine blokey, it really appeals to a whole range of men and it really sets itself apart from companies like Gillette. And this is why I really love it.
It’s really natural, it’s kind of funny and it’s really well executed, and I think that tone of voice is really important in this company’s efforts to stand apart from other big razor companies, like Gillette, which are massive.
Kate: Yes and they probably could never compete with those guys because they have huge marketing budgets.
Kate: So another really important point is if you are a smaller brand, having a really clear and engaging tone of voice can cut through that maybe you could be able to compete with the big brands.
I’ve got another example and, again, it’s another one of mine but the reason I’m giving it is because it’s an example for copywriting when you’re asked to write in a tone of voice. So for this one it’s a company called Play Market Research and they wanted a video script and they wanted it in the tone of voice of Little Britain. I don’t know if you know the narrative at the beginning of Little Britain?
Belinda: Oh yes.
Kate: It’s done by an ex-Doctor Who – and I know you’re a huge Doctor Who fan – Mr Tom Baker, who is my favourite Doctor Who. Who’s your favourite Doctor Who, by the way? This is an important thing, people need to know.
Belinda: I would have to say Matt Smith.
Belinda: I know, I can’t say no to David Tennant because he is awesome.
Kate: I like him, I like Peter Davison. Matt Smith? Eeeuw!
Belinda: [laughs] You’re an old school Doctor Who fan, I can see that. [both laugh] Anyway, back to Play Market Research.
Kate: Yes, so they wanted it to sound like Little Britain. So what you have to do then is you have to go and listen to a lot of those little intros and get that kind of tone, the pacing, the phrasing, and work that into the video. We’ll put a little link to the video at the end of the podcast on the website so that you can check it out and see if you think I did hit the mark when it came to that tone of voice.
Belinda: I’d love to check that because that’s really quite unique and it’s bold, and what we’re talking about here is loving companies, whatever tone of voice they want to go for, but having the courage to rally be different.
Kate: Yes, exactly.
Belinda: The last one I wanted to mention is probably a big one, I know it’s a company that you know very well and that’s Moz, they’re a very big SEO services and content company, probably the most well-known.
The reason I like them is they’re not quirky and they’re not super-funny or anything like that, but for a really technical topic I think they make SEO super-accessible. They have a really great way of explaining these big complicated topics in a way that almost everyone can understand, and I think that’s really great for companies who don’t want to go for the quirky, funny angle.
Kate: Yes and I think there is an approachability to Moz and they use their figurehead Rand Fishkin very well. He does these great videos every Friday where he explains an issue and, as you said, not necessarily in a quirky way, but a very understandable, very approachable way and I think that tone of voice flows through everything they do. Maybe it’s actually his tone of voice that they’re using across the board because I’ve seen him present live as well and it’s the same voice.
They’re very consistent as well and that’s a really important thing. No matter what they’re doing, whether it’s in person, on the website, presentations, videos; the tone is the same so you feel like you’re always with Moz.
Belinda: The other thing when you read the website, it feels very conversational, not in a slangy way but it feels like actual people have written the copy and it’s the people at the company, and it feels like you’re kind of talking to them. I think that’s really important for these technical or companies that maybe have services that you hold more at arm’s length, like lawyers and things like that.
It’s got to feel like when you pick up the phone, nice, friendly, genuine people are at the other end.
Kate: Yes, I agree. I think too often people think that professionalism and coming across as professional means that you have to be overly formal and almost cold. You can be professional and approachable, the two things are not opposites; they can work together.
Kate: So that’s the end of our examples, I think we were going to talk about our top tips?
Belinda: Yes, I think that’s a nice way to end the podcast. I’ll go first, I’ll lead the way on this one. I think knowing your audience and the language they use is a great first step because you have to speak the same language as your audience.
Kate: Yes, I agree and, partnering that, knowing your business and the values that you stand for and translating those into a tone of voice.
Belinda: And something you just mentioned, being consistent. So there might be a little bit of variation between platforms because you might have people at different stages in the sales process or their buying cycle, so you might speak to them slightly differently. But, as you said, it’s got to feel like you’re speaking to the same people everywhere.
Kate: Yes, agreed. We’ve talked a lot in this podcast about being quirky or crazy or whatever, but we’re not saying that everyone should go out tomorrow and be quirky. What we’re saying is be authentic to who you are. If your brand doesn’t feel right being particularly quirky or crazy or whatever, that’s fine. You just have to be authentic and you have to be able to maintain it
So don’t start with some ridiculous out there tone of voice that you’re going to get sick of in a couple of weeks and not be able to maintain. Be authentic to your brand values and then you’ll be okay.
Belinda: Yes, I agree. On the brand values, my next tip is to know the difference between brand values and tone of voice. So you might have a brand value such as expert, knowledgeable, friendly, approachable, but you have to work out how that sounds in your copywriting. So if I a person has that quality, how is it that they talk, what kind of words do they use, how long are the sentences, all those kinds of things. You have to take it to that next step.
Kate: And this one is for actual copywriters, I think all those apply for people in business writing copy but this is one for your working copywriter. I think it’s important that you as a copywriter develop your own strong tone of voice and you write in it as much as you possibly can, on your blog, social media and emails. That way potential customers can get used to your tone of voice, they can grow to love it, and they may eventually hire you just so you can write that way for them.
Belinda: I think that’s a really great way to wrap up. I think we’ve covered tone of voice pretty well Kate, what do you reckon?
Kate: I reckon that’s it, tone of voice, done.
Belinda: Done. Thanks for listening. If you like the show, don’t forget to leave us a rating and review on iTunes and Stitcher – your review will help other copywriters find us. You can also head to HotCopyPodcast.com and leave your comments on the blog post for this episode. Until next time, happy writing.
END OF PODCAST
Hi Kate and Belinda – just a note to say I’m enjoying your podcasts and I appreciate all your wise words. I’ve been freelance copywriting for three years and know very few other copywriters so it’s great to listen to viewpoints from others in the trade and keep learning. Ace.
Hi Kate, thanks for the great feedback!
We’ve got a great community on FB (https://www.facebook.com/groups/796291550487077/) and Google + (https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/111880311097834606567) … do come and join the fun and chit chat! 😀 — Belinda