How to write a great tone of voice guide (and what the difference is between that and a style guide)

Now that organisations are pumping out more content than ever before across a wide range of mediums and platforms, there’s been a rapid adoption of tone of voice (TOV) guides.

A lot of people are confused about the difference between a style guide and a tone of voice guide, largely because it wasn’t that long ago that a style guide would also cover tone.

For the most part, a style guide covers consistencies – for example, whether you should spell internet with a capital I, or whether you should spell per cent as one word, two words or a symbol.

Sometimes these choices come down to a matter of preference – other times they can reflect your audience, purpose and even your tone of voice. For example, if your style guide says you should refer to people using their titles and surnames, then that automatically makes your tone more formal than if it says you should only use people’s first names. If you work in finance and often use percentages, then you might be more likely to write % than to spell out per cent as a matter of practicality.

Tone of voice guides are focused entirely on how you come across to the reader. Are you friendly, cheeky, serious, authoritative or down to earth?

I’ve looked at countless tone of voice guides from my various clients across different industries, in addition to creating and updating guides myself, and for the most part a good tone of voice guide will always recommend the following:

 

Write in plain English

No matter who your audience is, or what you’re writing about, you always need to write using the same language you would use when talking to the reader face to face. If you’re talking to a client, for example, then you’re naturally going to be professional – and so if you write the same way it’s not going to be any less professional.

Remember that the content and the situation naturally drives the tone. If you’re writing a five-year strategic plan, then the tone is automatically going to be businesslike without you having to use formal words or obtuse sentences. If you’re writing a post on Yammer about an upcoming barbecue, then that alone makes the tone informal without you having to use exclamation marks or, heaven forbid, emoticons.

 

Use short sentences

Regardless of your tone, good writing requires short sentences. If there are too many commas in your sentences, then you are trying to get across too many points. Remember that you can write short sentences without being curt – which leads us to the next recommendation:

 

Be friendly – but get to the point

I have never seen a tone of voice guide that hasn’t had this recommendation in it. Although it would be fun to write a tone of voice guide for an evil corporation that insists on a sardonic, belittling tone, everyone – whether they’re genuinely friendly or not – wants to come across this way.

The trick to doing so does not lie in small talk that wastes people’s time – (ie “Gee, it was hot last weekend!”) – or insincere platitudes (such as by asking someone you don’t even know how they are), but simply writing in plain English as if you were talking to someone face to face. I know, I just repeated this point, but it’s key to writing like a human being and not a bureaucratic cog.

 

Know your audience

The better you understand your audience, the more effective your content – and your tone – will be. Before you write anything, you should visualise the reader and the situation they’re in.

Who are they?

Why are they reading your content?

How are they reading it?

When are they reading it?

 

Use before and after examples based on your own content

Before and after examples are crucial in a tone of voice guide – in my experience, they’re the areas that people refer to the most when looking at how they can change their writing.

Use a wide range of examples that reflect the different kinds of content you produce and the different audiences that they’re for.

 

Want to know more about creating a tone of voice guide?

Find out more about how I can help you create a tone of voice guide that works for your organisation.

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