Done well, tone of voice allows the brand to convey its values or qualities through the language it uses. A brand like Google is straightforward and a little irreverent ("do no evil" is often referenced as a favorite mantra of the founders). Virgin Airlines relies on a cheeky tone, while an investment firm like Merrill Lynch may choose to be more buttoned down and reassuring in its tone.
When tone of voice is consistent it allows the consumer another means of recognizing the brand and being reassured of expectations. Unfortunately, many brands don't have a consistent tone of voice, or their tone is not considered when aligning the communication aspects of the brand. Even brands that have crafted a tone of voice for external communications or advertising have done shockingly little to promote or encourage usage of that tone internally.
"Language is available to each of us," argues John Simmons, brand language evangelist and writer of several books on the subject. "Design is seen as a specialist life skill you have to acquire. Poor old language gets devalued because everyone does that, don't they?"
Simmons says that even the writing we use everyday -- in emails, memos, briefs and reports -- plays an instrumental part in reviving the status of language from within an organization. If a company's staff doesn't speak, write or behave in line with what the customer has been led to expect, then he will feel let down.
Internal departments, like human resources, which have largely been neglected for years by marketing departments, are being visited to review their communication efforts. This opens the door for language to be better valued, but an incomprehensible wall of jargon usually impedes progress from the start. Words like "leverage," "paradigm shift," and "synergy" have crept into the corporate vocabulary and are now commonly ridiculed in satirical lampoons like the television program "The Office" and cartoon strip "Dilbert."
Where does this strange language come from? How is it learned? "I'm not an anthropologist," says Simmons, "but I'm sure it's to do with liking to belong to a certain tribe, and one of the important ways in which you do that is by creating your own language, symbols and signifiers that people respond to. It's also a way of keeping people out of that tribe. So what you're saying with jargon is: A) You belong, and B) If you don't get it, you don't belong."
"There's something strange about committing words to paper," says Katrina Lambert, from Hay Group, an organization and human resources consultancy. "Suddenly you start to think about the right way to do things, the right way to say things. It starts to lock you into a mindset and a set of structures, particularly when you're writing for clients." Language takes on added importance in management consultancy, says Lambert, because the report is the only tangible evidence that a client sees of what actually might amount to significant labor.
Hay Group recently reviewed its own "tone of voice" and created a new set of marketing materials, with striking results. Says Lambert, "What this process has done for me is to help me abandon the prejudices I came to writing with: Big words are good! More syllables are better! There's a bias to wanting to use big words and appear intelligent -- obfuscation -- to not be plain and direct."
Professional services firms are likely the worst offenders for jargon usage. Even brand consultants, a group that should be advising their own clients against hot air, are guilty of using jargon and stock phrases. There's a surprising amount of brand propositions and tone of voice guidelines with "simple," "dynamic," and "fresh" principles; most are not distinctive at all.
These tried and tested principles have a dulling effect on brands and our capacity to differentiate them from each other. In George Orwell's 1984, one of the book's many quotable ideas is "Newspeak." Newspeak, according to the book, is the official state language; all individuality is stripped from words, and some words are removed altogether. The hazards of Newspeak are illustrated in the unimaginative language of brands. If your vocabulary is limited, so is your range of thought.
One way of invigorating language is simply to avoid falling back on hackneyed phrases. Language can be brought to life through the use of stories. A brand's story can be about how a business first started, who the people are that run it, or the idea behind a product. Stories and words feed off each other. When the language comes alive, the brand is better defined and more robust.
Not everyone is a wordsmith, of course, and tone of voice guidelines sometimes fall short in large businesses because of the number of people who need to apply them. Any group of people will have degrees of competence within it, from barely literate to aspiring novelist.
"It's formidably difficult," Simmons admits. "And I don't think you get around it by saying this is our tone of voice and we're going to make sure that absolutely everyone follows it, as that's doomed to failure. If you try to regiment a brand's language you're stultifying its development."
Lambert agrees, "We don't want anyone to come to us and say, ‘Gee, I loved your tone of voice.' That misses the point."
The best way to tackle this is by training staff to be able to recognize when a piece of writing is in line with the brand's values. This will encourage sensitivity in staff's own writing. The instruction has a number of useful knock-on effects. Principally, it means that a company can rid itself of the need for external copywriters. Another unexpected by-product of the process is staff engagement and practice. Any time that an employee spends thinking about how to correctly implement the tone of voice is time well spent toward understanding and living the overall brand.
A good place to start might be the internal newsletter. This is usually a one-way process originating with marketing. If other staff members write it, they are actively participating in the brand, while gaining practice on their own colleagues.
The good news about establishing a tone of voice and training staff on it, says Lambert, is that the clearer direction can be freeing. "This isn't about a straitjacket. When I look at the things that other people have done […], they go ‘Yippee! Finally! I don't have to spend decades mastering a set of language that isn't me and that I don't understand but feel a pressure to use because it equals professionalism.' It frees you to think bigger thoughts and have bigger ideas. Especially internally; some of the emails that have gone around following our tone of voice would have never happened before."
Simmons likens his brand language teachings to a "subversive activity." Being better with words certainly makes staff more confident and empowers them to shun the self-imposed Newspeak of management jargon. But this approach is also encouraging staff to put their personality into their writing and the organizations they write for. This not only gives writing a renewed status in brands, it unleashes a voice for staff too.