Corporate tone of voice: how to stop sounding like everyone else

By Lorraine Forrest-Turner,

Has our obsession with creating a ‘unique’ brand/corporate tone of voice turned us into a nation of clones?

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with many organisations in the creation and roll out of their ‘unique’ tone of voice (TOV). The starting point is usually a good one. They want to make it easy for everyone in the organisation to write in a consistent style. And they want everyone they write to (or for) to know they’re in the same safe hands, so to speak.

In search of the unique personality

Then, in pursuit of the TOV that reflects the ‘personality’ of the organisation, things get a little muddled.

A shed load of time and money is spent determining what that personality looks and sounds like. Several months, questionnaires and focus groups later, a list of adjectives is drawn up. This well-researched list depicts how the organisation sees itself. Or, more usually, how it wants to be seen.

This list invariably includes most (or all) of the following.

  • Open
  • Approachable
  • Honest
  • Trustworthy
  • Transparent
  • Caring
  • Authoritative
  • Professional

Well, derr, yeah. As if any organisation would want to be seen as closed, unapproachable, dishonest, untrustworthy, opaque, uncaring, weak and unprofessional.

As a result, pretty much every ‘unique’ TOV sounds like everyone else. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if what you’re really after is a style guide.

The difference between style and tone of voice

 While there are similarities between style guides and TOV guides, they aren’t the same.

Style guides are very useful indeed. One might even say necessary if you want to avoid five letters from the same company showing five different versions of the date. (4th July, 2019; 4th July 2019, July 4th 2019; 4 July 2019; July 4 2019. All correct. All different.)

Organisations have been adopting style guides since ‘HW Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ made its appearance in 1926.

Modern English Usage

Adopted almost universally in its day, Fowler’s guide dictated to everyone writing for an organisation how copy should be written, which words to avoid, and which parts and forms of speech best put across the tone the company wanted to take. Advertising pamphlets, which have been pushing products and services since the 1700s, only became truly ‘corporate’ in the second half of the 19th century.

Over the past 20 years or so, the useful style guide morphed into the TOV. And with everyone wanting to be seen as open, honest, caring, etc. etc., we’ve fallen back into the pitfall of flowery, salesy or over-friendly language.

Most corporate writing has now become staid, clichéd and insincere. (See my previous post 7 ways to stop writing the obvious.)

The age of Innocence

The ‘personalisation’ of copy probably hit its zenith (or some might say its depths) with ‘Innocent’ and its smoothie marketing. The company was (among the) first to adopt a jocular, irreverent TOV designed to make us smile. Its down-to-earth, something-your-mate-might-say-to-you style spawned a thousand copycats as everyone tried to make out they were just ordinary, wacky people like you.

Copywriter Tom Albrington has compiled an amusing list of ‘wackywriting’ from Innocent-inspired marketeers. This one from Brooks running shoes is very typical.

Thanks for picking me! I’m your new running partner. The people here at Brooks designed me using advanced technologies for cushioning, stability, comfort, and speed… So, come on. Let’s get going. 5k, 10k, around the block? Run happy!

 You can read more ‘wackywriting’ examples on Tom’s Wackywriting and the cult of Innocent.

It’s all nonsense, of course. It isn’t a single person having a natter with you. It’s a team of writers jemmying their copy into the TOV guideline. Immediately, certain phrases become popular or even successful, and that leads to repetition, cliché and insincerity.

Funny the first time

Yes, I smiled the first time I saw a smoothie bottle telling me they ‘even throw away the banana skin for you’ and when a coffee stall’s complimentary ginger snap had ‘stupid little biscuit’ written on the packaging. I had to chuckle the first time a Virgin train toilet told me not to put my ex’s favourite sweater down the loo. But like any gag, it’s only funny the first time you hear it.

The fact is, most of the time nobody is interested in your TOV – unless you’re writing your novel or epic poem – and adopting someone else’s TOV is fraught with elephant traps that can detract from the message you’re trying to deliver.

In this age of ‘targeted marketing’, where everything is meant to be aimed at you ‘personally’ (via a computer algorithm), we are all increasingly falling back on our default setting when we decide which products, services and television programmes we want to spend our hard-earned on. Word of mouth. A person we trust saying something we believe.

The only way companies can develop a truly unique tone of voice is when they talk in a…er… truly unique tone of voice. 

“I liked the Remington shaver so much, I bought the company”

That voice often starts with the boss, the founder, the face of the company. There are those that put themselves at the forefront of their marketing – Victor Kiam, James Dyson and Elon Musk, for example – and those like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that become the enigmatic face of the business, while hiding away from the public gaze.

In these cases, the voice of the head honcho permeates the business and everything it says and does – and because they have a real voice, a real personality, we immediately identify with their products and services.

Replace ‘chatty’ with ‘cringeworthy’

The important point, though, is that unless you have real people who are prepared to make their real voice heard, and using language that comes naturally to them, your committee-created ‘personality’ will come across as insincere and over-friendly, like some horrible pushy salesperson. Or worse, the self-indulgent ‘we want you to like us as much as we like ourselves’ copy, as this example from giffgaff shows.

We don’t like waste. We didn’t see much point in stuffing this little envelope with lots of tedious stuff flogging giffgaff this and giffgaff that. Instead, we made this nice little enveloped out of just one piece of paper, avoiding hurting loads of trees and wasting your time.

Ugg.

By all means, create a style guide for consistency. Instill Plain English to discourage customer services writing “do not hesitate to contact myself”. Even create a brand voice for marketing slogans and campaigns. But keep the ‘conversational’ copy to real people having real conversations with other real people. A polite “thanks for getting in touch” and “let us know if we can help” will do just fine.

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Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

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