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7 Steps for Establishing Your Voice and Tone Guidelines

Tips and inspiration for creating a consistent, recognizable voice for your brand.

Your voice and tone are how your brand communicates with the world. They affect every single touchpoint between you and your audience, including your website, social media channels, marketing, videos, webinars, and customer service interactions.

In this article, we’ll explore why your voice and tone are so important, offer tips for establishing guidelines for your brand, and share some inspiration to help you get started.

What’s the difference between voice and tone?

Voice and tone are closely related and at times it might seem like the terms are used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same.

Your voice is always consistent. It’s the words you use, the defining characteristics of your brand, and the overall personality that you want to shine through while communicating with your audience.

Your tone, on the other hand, changes all the time, depending on the situation. When you’re thanking someone for making a purchase, for example, you might want your messaging to feel informal and lighthearted. When you’re addressing someone who has a complaint or problem, however, it’s important that your words come across in a more serious, empathetic way. Tone is the way you’re using your words to convey a message or evoke emotion from your audience.

Twisted pencil.

The importance of voice and tone

Each interaction you have with your audience, regardless of the channel or medium where it occurs, is a golden opportunity to make—or build upon—a connection with them. According to Erin Crews, the Senior Design Manager of Content Strategy at Mailchimp who helped lead the charge on our own brand voice refresh, “a distinct voice makes your brand’s abstract identity more concrete and helps you connect with your audience. It’s an expression of your company’s values and point of view, and it should differentiate you from competitors.”

So whether you’re a small online retailer, a large B2B company, or anything in between, the words you use and emotions you invoke when talking to your customers are important. Here are 3 key ways voice and tone affect your brand.

Brand recognition

Everything that comes from your brand should look and sound like it comes from, well, your brand. If, for example, the voice you use on your website, on your social media accounts, and in email interactions with customers are all different, you’re sending mixed signals to your audience and making it tougher for them to identify what makes you, you.

A formal set of standards around the way you communicate will allow for consistency in your messaging and help you give your brand a personality that’s easily recognizable to your audience.

Brand loyalty

If you want to build a loyal customer base, you need to provide a great experience every single time people interact with your brand. A consistent, recognizable voice and tone across all of the touchpoints between you and your audience can help you do just that. Not only will it make your brand sound more human, but it will also make it more likely that your audience is able to connect with you on a more personal level.

Brand uniqueness

No matter what type of business you’ve got, chances are there’s something about the products or services you offer that separates you from your competitors; a reason that folks would choose you over everyone else in the marketplace. Each interaction your audience has with your brand should reflect those differences, too. Establishing voice and tone guidelines can help you ensure that the way you communicate with folks is always as unique as the stuff you sell or the services you provide.

Person writing in journal.

Getting started

When you’re ready to start working on your voice and tone guidelines, there are a few important things to consider that’ll help you along the way.

Step 1: Determine your target audience

Identifying your target audience—the specific group of people you want to reach with your products, services, and marketing—is crucial to every aspect of your brand, so it’s no wonder that it plays a key role in developing your voice and tone, too.

Once you know who your audience is, it’ll be easier to figure out how to communicate with them and what type of messaging will resonate most. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What are their demographics?
  • Where do they live?
  • What are their interests?
  • How do they communicate with each other?

The more information you have about your target audience, the more successful you’ll be in creating a brand voice that speaks to them in a relevant, effective way.

Step 2: Determine your goals

Before you can determine what to say or how to say it, it’s important to take a step back and clearly outline the purpose—the goals—behind your messaging. If you’re a retailer, for example, your overarching goals might be to sell your stuff and communicate its quality, effectiveness, or value. If you’re a software or app developer, you might want to establish yourself as an authority on a particular subject and teach folks how to do a specific thing.

Once you’ve got a general idea of the goals that should drive your messaging, it’ll be easier to make sure that your voice and tone guidelines are aligned with those goals and all of your content is created with them in mind.

Step 3: Define the core values you want to communicate

Your goals aren’t the only factor shaping your voice and tone and driving your messaging. Your brand’s core values play a significant role in every aspect of your communication, too. As you’re creating your guidelines, identify the traits and principles that are true to your brand or culture, and then use them to build a brand voice that feels natural and authentic.

Not quite sure what your core values are? Answering these questions might help push you in the right direction:

  • What does your brand stand for?
  • What sets you apart from the crowd?
  • How do you want people to perceive you?
  • How do you want to make people feel?

Step 4: Create a list of standards

As you’re developing your guidelines, it’s a good idea to lay out some specifics about what to do—and what not to do—when communicating on behalf of your brand. For example, maybe there are certain words you want to avoid when talking about yourself, your brand, or your customers. Or, perhaps you want to be quirky without coming across as weird, and casual without an emphasis on slang terms or forced humor.

By including these types of details in your voice and tone guidelines, you’ll always have a helpful resource you can refer back to if you’re not sure how to handle a particular content situation.

Dog balancing checked boxes.

You’ve established your guidelines. Now what?

Once you’ve created a set of guidelines that will help your brand put its best foot forward, it’s time to implement them. Here’s how.

Step 5: Share them with your team

If your team isn’t familiar with your voice and tone guidelines, there’s a good chance they won’t be followed at all. Take the time to explain the new guidelines to your current staff and incorporate them into the onboarding and training process for new hires, too. Provide real-world examples of the voice and tone in action, and take time to answer everyone’s questions about how to implement them. You might even consider publishing the guidelines somewhere—on your website or in your employee handbook, for instance—so they’re easily accessible to the folks who need them.

Step 6: Be consistent

“The way your team executes on your voice and tone guidelines has a measurable impact on people’s trust in your brand,” says Erin, so consistency is key. It’s crucial that you (and the other people who write or communicate on behalf of your brand) incorporate your brand’s updated voice and tone guidelines into everything you do. Every element of your messaging, across all touchpoints and channels, should fit within that framework.

Step 7: Keep them updated

As your brand grows, there’s a good chance your voice and tone will need to evolve a bit, too. And that’s okay! These guidelines are your own; if something isn’t working as you hoped or you need to adjust your communication style, don’t be afraid to switch things up.

Person riding meteor surrounded by stars.

Get inspired

If you’re not quite sure where to start with your guidelines, think about some of the other brands that you love and admire. What do they do well? Are there any elements of their communication strategy that could be helpful for your brand?

For Erin, Slack is a prime example of a company that’s created an effective voice and tone for their brand. “I’m always finding myself delighted by [their] copy. They do an incredible job creating unexpected moments of levity without getting in my way as I’m using their product.”

Some brands also opt to share their guidelines publically, so you can get an even better idea of how they communicate in different situations. Here are a few examples we think you’ll find helpful.

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