Tone of voice: we all have one, but we don’t always know how to use it

Can tone of voice form the basis of content strategy?

What exactly is “tone of voice”? And how is it connected to the navigation tree?

No, I do not wish to add my own voice to an already over-discussed matter on the web. In order to answer the first question, suffice it to google just two words to come up with hundreds of results and even the most demanding of readers can find the description he prefers to give shape to an element both as important as it is intangible in the world of communication.

This is why I prefer exploring the relationship between tone of voice and other more general content strategy elements: for example the navigation tree of a corporate website, although this may seem strange at first.


Tone of voice is not what we say but the way that we say it: isn’t that obvious?

We could start by saying something as simple and natural as this, but as we move on the subject soon becomes more complicated, particularly if we consider its importance.

In fact, anyone in the communication business knows just how crucial a theme this is because it is intrinsically connected to the important elements of a company’s reputation: it expresses its personality, it distinguishes it from its competitors and contributes to strengthening its credibility, reliability and consistency of its message.

This remains true as long as the tone reflects the image the reader has of that company: imagine if, through its website, Coca-Cola addressed the world with the same formal style used by the German government in its official communications. Wouldn’t it be a bit like seeing Cameron Diaz in the role of Angela Merkel?


Can tone of voice form the basis of content strategy?

Of course it can. It would be more appropriate actually.

From my privileged position in the Message observatory, I can safely say that not only would the best way to elaborate a complete content strategy be to start from tone of voice, but also that it is the only element able to guarantee a coherence.

All this is even more blatantly obvious in written communication (therefore on the web) for the very absence of this element – the voice and its unbounded modulation, which characterises our life offline:

However, it is enough to observe but a few institutional websites, even global ones, to note how companies dare to express themselves in a variety of tones which are exceptional, to say the least. It is as if there are a hundred companies speaking, not just one.

Are they all suffering from schizophrenia? Perhaps. Or do the number of tones we hear simply reflect the number of the company’s functions? Each is inclined to speak in the tone of voice to which it thinks itself best-suited without bearing the complete company image in mind. So we have a company for investors, one for journalists, another one for clients……..


Sharing one company tone of voice, therefore…

That’s why it would be more suitable to base one’s strategy on tone of voice. Sure, but where do we start?

To answer this question, let me tell a story of some years ago. We were helping a big industrial group to redesign its corporate website. We started by gathering information on the group, as anyone would do. On its very own channels, we came across an incredible mass of definitions with which the company described itself. Once it was a “global leader”, another time it was a “group operating in Italy”, other times it was amongst the lead actors on a European level”. Confusion continued to reign even in the description of the company’s field of activity.

What had happened? No more than a mere lack in sharing ideas within the group with regard to how it should be described.

Which brings us back to the question at the beginning of the paragraph. We must start by sharing – in our case both our tone of voice and all the elements which together help transmit it.


Can tone of voice be chosen?

To each his own: tone of voice is not so much “chosen” as it is “inherent” to the nature of whoever is speaking or writing. So no, tone cannot be chosen. People acquire it in a natural way whilst companies need to “find” the right one.


By asking oneself specific questions and working towards finding the answers. Questions such as “What are we? How would we like to be? What are our values and ethics?” By retracing the company’s history. By interviewing the company’s people on these themes. By analysing the documents on which the company is founded.

This process will guide the company towards the identification of its typical key characteristics and of the recurring themes and words of its credo, helping it to understand how it presents itself to others. This is tone of voice. The next step is to give it a name, usually a group of adjectives, to evoke its qualities.


Is that it?

No. There are many elements that are closely correlated to tone of voice. They help transmit it even if they are partly predetermined, such as type of vocabulary, sentence construction and the subject used, images and colours and topics discussed. All these aspects contribute to evoking the qualities of the company and so to communicating its tone of voice.

No, vi sono tutta una serie di elementi profondamente correlati al tono di voce, perché concorrono a trasmetterlo pur essendone in parte determinati.

Per esempio, un certo vocabolario, il modo di costruire le frasi, la persona dei verbi, le immagini e i colori, gli argomenti trattati, sono tutti fattori che, evocandone gli attributi, comunicano il tono di voce aziendale.


Definitions and vocabulary

Thinking about definitions is extremely important as it leads to the fine tuning of many useful expressions when writing. We have already talked about the definitions of companies. However, an identical process can be applied to specific sectors, technologies and products or to certain declarations on company targets in terms of innovation, ethics and responsibility.

Similarly, choosing vocabulary means identifying and making readily available to contributors a wide range of key terms used for typical topics. From jargon to business terms, the use of a common vocabulary has enormous advantages also for SEO. Furthermore, this activity is usually carried out during the analysis prior to defining tone of voice.


The subject, the object and verb tenses: the importance of consistency

Is it the company or the people of the company who are speaking? Should we use “we” or a more impersonal style, attributing all actions and thoughts to “Group X”? It is clear that whatever the choice, it simultaneously derives from and defines the company tone of voice. The result remains the same even if we turn things around. Who do we address? Do we use the informal or impersonal form? There is no clear-cut answer in this case either, it depends on the style you wish to adopt. In languages such as Italian the imperative goes well with the informal form. With “clicca qui” you would expect the use of the impersonal form whilst “cliccare qui” implies that the whole website is impersonal and therefore, if we refer back to the question at the beginning of this paragraph, that the company has not chosen the royal “we” to talk about itself.


Visual: design, images, image treatment

Who said that tone is simply a question of text? You couldn’t be any further from the truth. As far as power of expression is concerned, the design and the images are clearly far more effective than the text, more able to speak directly to the soul and transmit emotions and meanings. Even the choice of the images contributes to the kind of the company style conveyed.

What about the corporate website tree?

I hope I have convinced even the most sceptical of you that an element as seemingly neutral as a navigation tree can influence, together with other elements, the perception people can have of a company. I conclude by saying that the navigation tree itself is very often the cause of envy inside a company.

But that’s a different story…

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