5 Steps to Creating a Voice and Tone Guide That Your Coworkers Will Actually Use

In almost every content marketing book or conference, you’ll see the same tired ol’ (good) advice, “Your company needs a voice and tone guide!”

“Well, that’s great,” you might say, “How do I create one?”

You’ll often be told to look at this voice and tone guide by Mailchimp. And while it shows the final result, it doesn’t tell you how to make one.

It’s time to fix that.

Here’s a step-by-step process on how to make your own voice and tone guide--one your coworkers will actually use.

Step 1: Get buy-in from your CEO

If you really want this guide to be accepted in the company, you’re going to need to sell this idea to your CEO/marketing manager/brand manager (whoever has the vision for what the company will sound like). 

So how can you justify this project? Easy, as a matter of “brand consistency.”

Well, what’s so important about that? Gather Content says it best:

Consistency is memorable- As you aim to deliver great experiences for your customers, giving them a consistent encounter can help build loyalty. Think of the microtext you loved on the original Flickr, or why you get a kick out of MailChimp. They didn’t just pick default text, they created a voice to fit their brand and culture. And they made this ubiquitous.”

So if you have multiple writers, but no unifying voice, you’ll have a weak, unmemorable brand that your customers can’t connect with.

The Voice and Tone Guide will set the ground rules for who can say what, and how it should be said, keeping every encounter your customers have with you consistent. 

Defining our terms

Let’s step back for a moment to make sure you are your CEO are on the same page by clearly defining what voice and tone mean so there’s no confusion:
  • Voice: Your company’s brand personality described in adjectives.
  • Tone: A subset of voice. Tone shades your voice based on the audience and situation/content type.

In summary: Your company will have one voice, but many tones that shape the voice in different content scenarios.

To give your CEO a real life example of voice and tone, think of a how a parent talks to a child: The parent has one, recognizable voice or personality when they talk to the child on a day-to-day basis.

But what if the child is misbehaving or did something praiseworthy? The parent’s tone changes because of the situation.
Learn more about the difference between voice and tone at UX Magazine: Tone and Voice: Showing Your Users That You Care.

Step 2: Prepare for the voice interview

Now that you’ve (hopefully) got a buy-in, you need to interview your CEO to find the voice of the company. 

The key is to find the adjectives that describe your company’s brand.

Here are a few questions you can ask to get you started:
  • “If your brand was a person what kind of personality would it have? Give us at least 3 distinct characteristics/adjectives.”
  • “If your brand was a person, what’s their relationship to the consumer? (a coach, friend, teacher, dad, etc)?” For example: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”
  • “Describe in adjectives what your company’s personality is not.” Use this question is to clarify adjectives from the first question. So the exchange might go like this:
  • You: “You said our company’s personality is ‘fun’. Clarify that statement for me. We’re fun but not...what?” 
    CEO:  “We’re fun, but not childish.”
  • “Are there any companies that have a similar personality to ours? Why are they similar?“

Some of these questions were adapted from, “The Copywriter's Toolkit: The Complete Guide to Strategic Advertising Copy” by Margo Berman, an invaluable book in any content writer’s library.

Step 3: Brainstorm content types that require distinct tones (get help!)

Now that you have your company’s voice, you need to brainstorm the types of content that require a distinct tone.

Involve different co-workers who write these content types on a daily basis. For instance, if you have any social media gurus, ask them the best practices of what your tone should be on Facebook and Twitter so everyone can post.

Some content that requires a different tone include:
  • Blogs
  • Emails to clients/customer (confirmation emails, replies to complaints, etc)
  • Social media situations (responding to criticism, praise, questions, etc)

Here’s a template you can use for each content type’s tone:

Content type: What are you writing?
Reader: Who are you talking to in this scenario?
Reader feelings: What’s the reader feeling when they are in this tone scenario?
Your tone should be: Use adjectives that describe how you should sound in this scenario.
Write like this: Give a brief example of how the writing should sound.
Tips: Explain best practices of writing for this scenario.

Here’s an example of Rocket Media’s tone when we write our blog posts.

Content type: Blog posts
Reader: Marketing managers, small to medium business owners
Reader feelings: Curious or frustrated from lack of answers
Your tone should be…casual, empathetic, knowledgeable, transparent
Write like this: “Can’t seem to get any traction with your email campaigns? Bummer. You’ve got such a good product, too! But there’s a simple solution.”

Tips:
  • Teach and enlighten. Feel free to link out to other relevant articles, give tips and show glimpses of behind-the-scenes at Rocket Media.
  • Be casual and don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor.

Step 4: Present the completed guide to relevant coworkers

Now that you’ve got everything down, you need to get everyone on the same page. Put together a simple presentation explaining:
  • What the purpose of a Voice and Tone Guide is
  • What the company’s voice/personality is
  • Examples of a few common tone situations people will commonly encounter (blog posts and emails to clients/customers)

Step 5: Store it where everyone can easily find it

Make it easy for people to find and open at a moment’s notice. Options for storing it include a:
  • Google Drive document that everyone has access to
  • Drop Box folder that’s shared between everyone
  • Company wiki or intranet

Take it one step at a time

Seems like a daunting process right? Especially the buy-in part. But don’t worry. Since you now have an overall plan, you’re much more likely to get this project approved. 

And it’ll be worth it in the end because you’ll have a document that will help you form a strong, memorable, consistent brand.

For more information about creating a memorable voice, check out the voice section of The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World.

Got any questions, comments, or disagreements? Let us know in the comments below.

If you found this super helpful, share it with your coworkers on Facebook or Twitter to get the ball rollin’.
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