Tone of Voice Continuum

Robert Mills

When I did a talk on tone of voice at Revolution Conf last year, I spent a little time talking about using a continuum. This was in relation to going through the process of defining your own tone of voice and the tools and activities that can help with this.

A continuum is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:

A continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct.

With a continuum in relation to tone of voice, you have two opposites at each end of the continuum such as informal and formal. The opposites you choose is up to you, as is the amount you include, but here’s an example I made:

You could also have reserved – warm, corporate – relaxed or other suitable variables you think are relevant.

The reason why a continuum can be helpful is that people are sometimes nervous about committing to one extreme or another. They worry that if they define themselves as formal, they will always have to be very stuffy and corporate. A continuum allows them to be between the two extremes, though if they are placed in the middle for all variables then there’s little help in the exercise. In my experience most people tend to be closer to one end than the other.

This process also forces you or the client to make honest decisions and that can be difficult. Lots of people think they should be informal in order to be engaging but if your business, service, culture, values and personality require you to be more formal then so be it. So long as you make honest decisions, that will allow you to be authentic and consistent with your tone and that’s what you should be striving for.

Looking at the example above again, you may think why would we want to be technical? Well perhaps your business and service involves process and language that can’t be avoided and therefore being technical is a necessary requirement. The other lines on the continuum will help you decide how that technical info sounds though.

Similarly, you probably don’t want to define your tone as uptight but it may be appropriate for it to be serious and mature. The words on the left of the continuum are not bad or to be avoided as they will suit some companies.

As part of the same talk I represented some choices made from a continuum using imagery. This was again a fun way to visualise two extremes beyond just listing words.

When you’re writing guidelines, using existing ones, defining a tone, and writing and editing copy on a regular basis, it is easy to forget that for some clients the process you take them through will be the first time they’ve thought about their tone in such a way. Try to keep it lighthearted and fun. The continuum and images above worked well before more stringent tools and processed were utilised.

I don’t recommend a continuum as the sole way to define a tone of voice. If anything it is a fun ice-breaker to get you or your clients thinking about their tone in an honest way. I’ll blog about other tools and methods in due course.


Polar Opposites header image by Hisss Illustration.