Revolution Conf: Talk Summary

Robert Mills

This post is a summary of a talk I gave at Revolution Conf in Shrewsbury on September 27th. I’ve tried to link to as many examples as possible and have included some of my slides where appropriate. This post is mainly for those who were at the event as the slides/content will lose some relevance out of context but if you weren’t there, I hope it’s still interesting and useful.

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After discussing my two caveats and introducing myself, I started with an example. A company that makes things might say:

The diversity in our department enables us to be innovative and creative, resulting in revolutionary, ground breaking and immersive experiences for our target customers.

Or they might say:

We build awesome products our customers love.

They both say the same thing but they say it in different ways. You probably prefer one over the other (the second , most likely) but this isn’t about if one is right and one is wrong as the tones of those statements may accurately reflect the culture, brand and personality of the company saying it.

With that example in mind, what is tone of voice?

It’s the way we express our personality. It’s what we say but more importantly, how we say it.

When we chat to people in person we communicate through the words we say, our body language, cues and gestures and also the tone of our voice. Our online tone of voice is just as important.

Here’s how the University of Manchester describe their own tone:

A great brand is built around a strong personality, and a strong personality has a distinctive and recognisable tone of voice.

That’s lifted straight from their tone of voice guidelines. It’s a perfect description of tone of voice in relation to a brand. When discussing tone of voice with clients, there are two key things I emphasise:

  • Be authentic
  • Be consistent

Authenticity

To be authentic will only come from knowing who you are inside and out, your personal brand and/or your company brand. No matter how a client has contact with your brand the tone of voice should be authentic. If your tone of voice on the phone and in your content is formal but then they go to your office and the team are wearing t-shirts and converse then it isn’t authentic. Your tone of voice on the web give people an expectation as to how you are in person and on the phone.

Consistency

This is so important but many fail to be consistent. You should be consistent with your tone of voice wherever you speak to your audience including your web content, social media output, emails, phone manner, face to face communication and anywhere else you and your brand appear.

Here’s a great quote from the British Council  guidelines on their tone of voice and being consistent:

Why is tone of voice so important though? Why should you care how you sound to others? Well there are reasons relating to standing out in a crowd, achieving business goals, communicating your personality, establishing your brand and then reinforcing it but it is ultimately about engagement.

Language connects us all, it moves us, it engages us. Through your tone of voice you can decide how to tell your story and how you sound will affect people’s connection to your brand.

Learning from others

There is a lot that can be learnt from how others write about their own voice in their brand guidelines. All guidelines referenced in my talk are available online. Just do a search and take a gander. Here are some that were mentioned.

The University of Manchester have an 11 page document for their tone of voice. It’s great to see it as more than just a paragraph tacked onto the end of brand guidelines and it’s important for a University where there are lots of content creators who need to ensure the tone is authentic and consistent. Guidelines are also important to explain the tone and how to achieve it. Be sophisticated, be active, these mean nothing. Be passionate is another, a throwaway statement. Everyone should be passionate about what they do, it isn’t a tone of voice.

Here’s a page from their guidelines:

They have rules for their tone of voice. This is a great approach because they don’t just say sound professional but they state the rule, explain why it exists and then give examples of what to do and what not to do. Or rather how to sound and how not to sound. They show rather than tell.

Here’s a page from the NHS guidelines:

They state that anyone who works for the NHS is an ambassador for the organisation. They also state that all communications should support their principles and values. This is a key part of any brand and communication strategy.

There are 4 parts to this which can be organised in different ways but for this talk and in relation to the examples being discussed I settled on:

Values underpin your brand. Your brand will define your personality. Your personality will be communicated through your tone of voice. Whatever order you feel most comfortable with, one thing circles the four of these parts and that is storytelling.

Brands tell stories and the success of this and how people engage with them is down to how that story is told. It’s down to the language they use and the way they speak to us that makes us prefer one brand over another. We engage, we can be loyal, we can moan about them on Twitter.  We form emotional connections to the brands and tone of voice plays a big part in that.

Every storyteller needs to know their audience. It would be better if they could understand them as well as knowing and understanding are two different things. You may have different audiences to target and this can be tricky to keep a consistent tone of voice. Well your voice can be the same but you can adjust your tone as needed. If you read a story on the main BBC news site and then the same story on the Newsround part of the site which is news for a younger audience, you’ll see the same story told in two different ways but it’s clear both are from the BBC.

Your tone of voice represents who you are but considering your audience can also help you target them effectively. Macmillan Cancer Support do this well.

They also have detailed guidelines available online, some for branding and then separate ones for how they speak to people. The guidelines state: be personal, be active, be inspiring, be straightforward. How can you tell someone to be straightforward and expect to have content with a consistent tone, it’s quite open for interpretation.

So their guidelines list what to do and what not to do. This is most interesting in relation to specific words and it is clear from this slide that they have considered their audience and the sensitive nature of what they do, when forming their tone of voice guidelines:

You can see that you can’t use words like victims, sufferers, battling or fighting. All of those words have negative connotations. Instead you can use people, living with, changed, touched, a cancer experience. These are much softer and it changes the tone significantly.

By this point I needed a drink …

Finding your tone of voice

This depends on what resources you have available. In an ideal world you can find a company that specialise in verbal identity and brand language. Perhaps you’ll go to a design agency who have a dedicated content person. You may work with a freelance copywriter. But what if you can’t reach out to any of those people? Well no matter what your process, all will involve asking questions.

A continuum is a good tool to place yourself between two extremes. Here’s an example:

Most companies say they want to be informal and friendly but that’s only fine if it is authentic to who they are. Being technical is fine if it suits you and is reinforced by your brand values. Nobody wants to be uptight but it might be appropriate for you to be serious and mature.

When asking questions you have to be honest. Even if it means accepting you are more formal than you wanted to be. If you aren’t honest you won’t be authentic. By asking questions you can make strong decisions and you can decide to be one thing rather than another, such as deciding to be:

As you start to define your tone you can also make more precise decisions such as if you’ll use acronyms and abbreviations. These choices about language and words will change how you sound. Will you use contractions such as we’re instead of we are and you’re instead or you are. The former ones are more informal. Every word counts like Macmillan know.

If defining your tone of voice is part of bigger project, perhaps with an agency involved, then you may take part in workshops, stakeholder interviews, competitor analysis, content audits and audience research.

Once you have decided how you sound everyone in your organisation has to know. The designers, developers, sales folk, admin staff and directors. From top to bottom and side to side.  Like the NHS tell their people, you’re an ambassador.  All people in the company speak to others on the phone, send letters and emails, meet people in person, meet customers, write content and go to meetings. If they don’t all know the tone then it won’t be consistent.

There are six of us at Bluegg and I know that everyone in the team could write a tweet in our tone of voice because we all know how we sound. We all understand the brand, we experience the culture and so whoever you speak to and in whatever way, our tone of voice will be consistent and authentic. This is evident in our web copy, phone manner, out of office messages, face to face chat, business cards and everything in between.

Once the tone has been defined and communicated to the team it then needs to be policed. This can be challenging depending on the size of the company. It’s easy for a team of six like us but difficult for a university of health board where there are several content creators who may be spread wide geographically.

To police it you can have internal workshops and meetings to talk about the tone of voice. You can also produce guidelines like some of the ones we have looked at. If you do write guidelines, show, don’t tell. Give examples. You might also assign a gatekeeper to proof any content before it is released. This all comes down to the resources available.

Small to big

Here are three examples of how others are finding and implementing their tone of voice. From a local business to a nationwide start up and a huge organisation.

I live in Barry (yes, where Gavin and Stacey is filmed) just outside Cardiff. There is a small local business here called The Little Blue Deli. Here is one of their Facebook status updates:

It would be madness to leave the house in this weather – have breakfast delivered to your door.

Here’s another:

It’s hard to get excited about buying things for school on Monday. Even a new pencil case hardly takes the edge off the gloom. Pop in and see us for a milkshake or a hot chocolate and make the most of the last couple of days.

I know that The Little Blue Deli haven’t consulted anyone about their brand, tone of voice, content and marketing as a whole. The reason why they speak to people in the most appropriate way, especially through social media, is because they know their offering inside and out and they see their customers face to face. How they speak online is how the speak in person and that’s always a good test. If you have written something, read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound like how you would say it to someone in front of you then it probably isn’t right.

Next up was Pact Coffee. This is a company that started in October 2012 and they post delicious coffee to their customers around the UK.

As a relatively new company trying to establish themselves and create a brand (they launched as Your Grind and rebranded recently), I was curious as to how much time and thought they put into their tone of voice. As a customer I was impressed with their tone which was consistent, seemed authentic and really connected with me. From ‘introduce yourself’ on the sign up form to their emails and social media content, they were engaging throughout.

So I contacted Stephen, the founder, and asked him five questions about their tone of voice. His answers revealed that:

  • All content is written internally but is signed off  by one person who ‘has a way with words’
  • They’ve never formally planned a communication strategy due to being a small team (they expect they will need to one day)
  • For every bit of content that is written they ask, ‘does it sound Pacty?’
  • They have established company values which are: Honest, open and warm
  • No official audience research has been done but they listen to feedback and react to what works well and what is liked

I was really impressed with the honest of Stephen’s answers. Their service is top notch too and the coffee is a treat.

But what about the big guns, how does an organisation that is massive deal with tone of voice? I turned to Gov.uk to try and find out. There is so much to learn from this site though so my best advice is to check out their style guide for more info, it really is a fascinating read into how they deal with content, audience and tone:

They describe their tone (on image above) and support this with prescriptive guidelines on how they achieve this. For example they state that text must be gender neutral, they write in plain English and avoid Americanisms (in the UK we fill in a form not fill out a form) and they are serious and not pompous. Making these precise decisions about words will affect your tone.

I needed a drink again by now. You know the drill:

The third part of the talk looked at different examples, I won’t go through them in detail but here’s a reminder.

The BBC, perfect tone for a traditional and trusted organisation:

This Virgin Airways example raised a few giggles but I’m still unsure. It is amusing but is it necessary? It isn’t consistent with any of their other content. I think I’m verging on classing it as being a bad choice of tone:

The National Trust signs convey a brilliant tone and are a good play on traditional warning signs. One example is below with more in my blog post about the signs:

The Angry Birds app update example is nice because so many others describe the updates as ‘bug fixes.’ Here they have added some personality in a friendly tone which is a nice touch and good attention to detail for anyone who reads it:
I Want One of Those don’t tell their users to ‘search’ but rather then encourage them to ‘find stuff you want’:
Last Minute don’t ask users to ‘please wait’. Instead they are told to:
And finally, Amazon almost made me buy something by saying:

Get yourself a little something. I almost did based on that tone alone. That’s much better than ‘on your wishlist’, ‘recommended products’ or ‘other people also viewed.’

The final part of my talk focused on LOVEFiLM and That’s Entertainment. Here I tried to compare to like for like services (they both sell/provide entertainment). I like the tone of voice of That’s Entertainment and I loathe the LOVEFiLM tone. You can read more about the reasons why and the examples used in my talk in my previous post about these two companies.

Though I will add here the correspondence I had from LOVEFiLM when I cancelled my account:

They also state in their guidelines, is it entertaining, warm and witty? No, no it isn’t. Nor is consistent and nor does it create an emotional connection between the brand and the customer. It’s so impersonal that I feel nothing more than a subscriber number  and I have tried to speak to someone about it as I am genuinely interested in their process but nobody has ever replied to me. With 2 million subscribers, 11 acquisitions across Europe and 6 million unique visits per month to their UK site I guess they’d argue there’s nothing wrong with it.

After a quick summary my talk was over. Kirsty Burgoine who co-organised the conference wrote  a great summary of the day. This also includes links to other reviews of the conference and the brilliant photos by Stonehouse Photographic.

Thanks for listening/reading.