In this article we explore:
Language is an incredibly powerful thing. Used well, it has the power to move, inspire, motivate, entertain and include. Used poorly, it can do the exact opposite.
Every single word carries meaning - meaning that can vary hugely just by other words that surround it, its position in a sentence, its grammatical inflection, the way it’s pronounced, the volume at which it is uttered, who is saying it, who is hearing it, the context in which it is said, we could go on…
Meaning, by the way, involves so much more than the idea that the word explicitly represents. Implicit meanings are just as significant, if not more telling of what the speaker is communicating.
There is no reason to believe that the 'essential purpose' of language is communication. Language can be used to transmit information, but it also serves many other purposes: to establish relations among people, to express or clarify thought, for play, for creative mental activity, to gain understanding, and so on - Noam Chomsky
We use language to both actively express and unintentionally reveal aspects of our identities. Language acts as a window into our qualities, beliefs, personalities and demographies. Just think of the differences between ‘man’ and ‘geezer’, ‘yes’ and ‘yaaas’.
As listeners, we make assumptions (mostly subconsciously) about people based on the way they speak, just as we do with the way a person dresses. Fascinatingly, we can appropriate these assumptions to showcase a certain side of our identity, the same way we can wear different outfits to express ourselves differently. We all play a variety of roles in our lives (a person might be at once a mother, friend, daughter, employee and colleague) and we use language to switch between these roles and take different stances in conversation.
Mankind's innate ability to decipher meaning from soundwaves or squiggles on a page also presents companies with an incredibly useful tool; to use language to showcase their brand's own identity and form stronger connections with their customers.
Tone of voice (or TOV) involves what a company says, as well as how they say it and the impression it leaves on their audience.
Every time a company uses language, they tap into our ability to associate different qualities with particular speech patterns.
Each time employees in a company produce copy for the website, send communications to their customers, write a script for an advert, give a sales pitch to a prospective client or exchange emails within their team, the language used paints a picture of the company's identity. Repeated over time, these building blocks form the brand's image in society's collective mind.
Brand image flows the other way, too. If a company manages to craft a strong, consistent and recognisable tone of voice, their language and way of communicating becomes synonymous with that brand. It's difficult to think of brands like Innocent without their chatty, quirky and infantilised copy coming to mind.
Of course, a TOV that works well for one company won't necessarily fit another. The playful, subversive, almost infantile TOV used by Innocent Smoothie won't land with a serious law firm. It’s not always about industry, mind- companies like Monzo have succeeded in bringing an informal, wonderfully simple TOV to banking, meeting the desires of an audience who were fed up with the outdated, overly-formal and jargon-heavy communications from their old banks.
These three pointers are key for finding a unique TOV:
1. Know your audience.
The most important question to ask yourself when crafting a tone of voice is 'who is my audience?'. This includes both your current customers and the ones you wish you had. Remember that the answer to this question doesn't have to be (and sometimes perhaps shouldn't be) 'everyone'. In fact, companies that take a stance and have opinions often end up forming stronger relationships with their customer base, since people can relate more closely.
2. Write first, define later.
Contrary to what you might think, it’s better to just start writing than to fixate on the principles of your TOV. It’s all very well to have three words that sum up your voice, or decide that ‘if my brand were a person, it’d be Catherine Tate’, but when it comes down to it, it’s best to have practical examples to work with. Lofty ways of defining your voice won’t help anybody write in that tone unless you have examples. Get down to the nitty gritty first.
3. Know what you stand for.
People like opinions, even from brands. Not everybody will side with Oatley’s ‘cow’s milk is weird’ stance, but those people aren't their target market - they have effectively identified their predominantly vegan audience and crafted a tone which allow their customers to strongly align themselves with their brand.
Whatever it is that your brand stands for, having a clear idea in your mind will mean that the message comes through in your copy.
Going back to the point of ‘knowing your audience’, if your audience includes vulnerable customers then having a clearly defined TOV is not only useful, it’s crucial.
Caring for vulnerable people goes beyond simply hoping that people are drawn to your brand image. Every time a company makes a mistake, says the wrong thing or over-complicates things, it affects those in need. Companies caring for vulnerable customers need to take that responsibility very seriously, taking time to reflect on the ways in which they communicate with customers.
Take for example our work at Ophelos - helping people emerge from debt. Unfortunately, a great deal of the people we help are in vulnerable circumstances, often due to uncontrollable events. We have tried to form our tone of voice by putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are struggling with debt alongside other difficult situations.
Here are some of the principles we stick by:
No overly-formal, intimidating or jargon-filled text.
The last thing that a person who is already struggling financially wants to receive is a cold, formal letter informing them that they owe more money and must pay soon.
We aim to speak to our customers the same as we would to our friends - with respect, kindness and compassion. Our communications use a warm tone, with the aim of helping customers to feel at ease with their debt.
Be clear and concise.
We strive to make our communications as simple and open as possible, being fully transparent with the customer about how we operate and all of their possible solutions for clearing a balance.
We’re all guilty of skim-reading, so it’s imperative that we get across all the most important information in clear, concise language.
Inspire positivity and motivation.
Having problem debt never helped anybody, so we want to help customers to pay off their debt in a way that works on their terms. Dealing with debt alongside additional difficulties can make it easy to feel hopeless and unmotivated.
The way we communicate aims to encourage people to take action, whether that means clearing their debt immediately, setting up an automatic transfer for a later date, breaking their balance down into smaller instalments or seeking free, independent debt advice.
People can distinguish fact from fiction in a few sentences. Caring for vulnerable customers means going beyond niceties and providing practical, long-lasting help.
At Ophelos, for example, we make it easy for customers to get help at their fingertips with and our highly-trained customer support agents are reachable via live chat, text, email or phone.
Companies need to make sure that their tone permeates every part of their business. We aim to make everything we write at Ophelos echo our tone of voice, making sure that it seeps through to our company values, our company culture and the way we communicate with each other.
If you would like to learn more about the language we use to communicate with customers, why not get a demo?