Tone of Voice Guidelines

Robert Mills

Last week I was talking about tone of voice guidelines with someone doing research into how companies communicate. I referenced a few examples and thought it might be of interest if I share those here. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine to read tone of voice guidelines because they give a good insight into how others talk and this can be interesting, especially if you have engaged with that brand. Do their guidelines match your own experience of that brand, for example.

It would also be insightful to find out the process they went through that led to the guidelines but even without that knowledge the guidelines are worth a read. Of course if you’re working on your own voice you will need to define a process that suits you and not simply use others as a blueprint, but let’s not get bogged down with the nitty gritty here. This post is simply a collection of other guidelines that I find interesting for different reasons.

All of the guidelines mentioned in this post are available freely online. I have provided links to the full documents should you wish to read more.

NHS

The NHS have extensive brand guidelines as you’d expect. Tone of voice is one part of this and they state:

What I like here is that they ask if your text can be spoken out loud to the reader and sound like it’s being addresses to an individual. Reading aloud what you have written is a simple but effective exercise and can really help you get a feel for how you’re coming across, even if you do feel a wally talking to yourself.

The NHS guidelines continue with:

The guidelines are empowering here. Letting staff know that they are ambassadors for the NHS and this should be considered when they communicate with them. It must be challenging to retain consistency and authenticity within such a large organisation and they have taken steps to alleviate any issues with their quality assurance  system. That’s as much about customer service as it is tone of voice I suspect.

The University of Manchester

This university have extensive tone of voice guidelines, a dedicated 11 page document in fact. They define what tone of voice is, talk about the university brand as a person and then list 8 rules to achieve their tone of voice. Here’s an example:

The approach they have taken is to list rules, state why they have that rule and then show it in practice with relevant examples. From the example above you can clearly see a difference in tone between the Instead of … and the Use …

Other rules they list include:

  • Get straight to the point. Why? We think deeply, but communicate clearly.
  • Use the same tone of voice, whoever you are talking to. Why? We talk to lots of people, but we have one fixed identity.
  • Steer clear of sector-wide cliches. Why? We will set the standard that others follow.

For that cliche rule they don’t show an instead of and a use example. They list the 10 higher education cliches and ask their content creators to find imaginative ways to avoid using them. There are 4 more rules in the complete guidelines.

Macmillan

Macmillan are a cancer support charity. They deal with people in emotional situations and their tone of voice guidelines clearly (as you’d hope) take this into consideration. They have an overview of their tone of voice which instructs people who are writing for them to think P.I.S.A:

  • P – Personal
  • I – Inspiring
  • S – Straightforward
  • A – Active

You can read that overview here and that page also links to their 25 page tone of voice writing guide. These are very comprehensive but the part that stands out for me is when they talk about writing about people and cancer. They state:

Our work is primarily about people, not a disease. So when we’re writing about Macmillan, we need to demonstrate that we always put people affected by cancer at the very heart of our work. We almost always write about ‘people with cancer’ rather than ‘patients’. This is because people often tell us that they don’t want to be defined by their illness. If in doubt, avoid using the term ‘patient’

This really shows the consideration they are giving to language, mindful that the words you choose have a direct impact on the tone you are heard in and the personality you convey.

This is best demonstrated in this section of their guidelines:

You can see how they have opted for much more positive, considerate and sympathetic language in their content. A truly brilliant approach when dealing with people who are affected by cancer in some way.

National Trust

I love the National Trust brand and voice, so much so that I once wrote about it on this very blog. They have brand guidelines that extend to 84 pages. They are comprehensive. If you check them out though, skip to page 61 as this is where they talk about their voice.

They talk about the importance of their tone of voice in relation to how people feel about them and building better relationships. They also state how they have been perceived and how they want to be perceived:

Their tone of voice is paramount to being described using words on the right hand side of that table. This is further explained when the guidelines go on to say:

Our tone of voice links directly to our values and behaviours. These were created to show what we’re like at our best and how we want people to feel about the Trust. So our tone of voice is just about bringing these to life when we write.

They then talk about their values, give writing tips and share examples. (I digress here to say that these are some of my favourite tone of voice guidelines). Again, the examples they include are relevant to who they are and what they do so it puts it all into context for the reader. When you read through the guidelines you can see why they have the signs that I highlighted in my previous National Trust post and you can see more of those signs from the company that created them in this case study.

Here are some of the examples taken from the guidelines:

Here’s another:

After the examples they bring it all together with a before and after scenario and state why the after is right for the brand. I definitely recommend you check their guidelines out.

All of the examples in this post are quite different. Rules, language, examples, lists, visuals, the focus may vary but they all serve to achieve the same goal – making sure whoever is writing for them is doing so in an authentic and consistent way.

There are many other guidelines available online too, some of which I may include in a follow up post but for now I’m off to spend 5 minutes looking at one of my all time favourite guides, the GOV.UK style guide which has plenty to say about writing for them and for the web.

Spot any other ace guidelines? Let me know on Twitter and I’ll be your best friend forever.