Let’s say I’m single and my friend sets me up on a date with one of her friends.
We become ‘friends’ on Facebook, and message each other a few times, ahead of this first date.
When messaging, my prospective date comes across as witty, intelligent, and – judging by her use of language – is well read / cultured.
When we meet for our first date, she comes across slightly differently. She’s a bit crude, downs pints of cider like water, and – when we go for a meal – is rude to some of the waiters.
This seems odd, but – no worries – it could just be first date nerves.
On our second date, she’s witty, erudite, has cultural reference points well beyond anything I’ve seen/watched/read, will only drink Bombay Sapphire gin, and says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to anyone who helps or serves us.
On the way home, she buys a sandwich for homeless guy sat in a doorway, and talks about what a travesty it is that anyone should be homeless in the UK – the sixth largest economy in the world.
On our third date, she arrives 30 minutes late, doesn’t explain why, talks a lot about money and how much she earns, and comes across as slightly smug. She says people should ‘sort out their own problems’ and it’s not her job to help others.
She burps a lot, insists I should pay for Champagne, then leaves early.
When we keep in touch, in between dates, she comes across differently dependent on whether it’s via WhatsApp, texts, or Facebook Messenger.
In the end, I decide I can’t pursue a relationship with her. I can’t tell who she is, what she’s really like, and what her true personality is. I never quite know what I’m going to get when I meet/message her, so I don’t fully trust her – not enough to build a long-term relationship.
Guess what: this is what happens – on a grander scale – if your organisation doesn’t have a set tone of voice (or even just a style guide), has a set tone of voice but doesn’t stick to it, or has a set tone of voice but lets any old member of staff write marketing collateral – in their own style.
I should point out that tone of voice is much more than just your copy / written content: it’s the font your organisation uses, the colours they use, their logo, their recruitment and induction process, the way staff answer the phone etc etc… but, as I’m a copywriter, I’m going to focus on the words bit.
Anyway…back to the point.
If you don’t have a tone of voice guide at all, you’re already in trouble. It means any content/copy can be written in any way (witty, serious, aggressive, matter-of-fact, combative, supportive, sombre), by anyone, at any time. It means that a client/customer/donor/volunteer could get two emails from you and not even know they’re from the same organisation – or they could get an email, see a social post, and receive direct mail (across a period of time, of course), and not know, immediately, who they’re from (or why/how to respond).
If your organisation has a set tone of voice, but doesn’t use it, that’s just daft. Either you paid an agency a fair amount of money to draft your brand narrative and tone of voice, or it took an in-house team a long time to get it right. By not then applying that tone of voice, you’ve wasted money, time… or both.
If your organisation has a set tone of voice, but you let any old member of staff write copy or content however they want to, at different times… then you might as well not have a tone of voice.
The tone of voice should be guarded by those who work in the right team and/or have the right skill set i.e the Marketing, Comms, or Creative team.
These are people who are used to writing in different tones, consistently, having worked with/for different organisations. They know that each organisation has to come across as having a distinct personality to stand a chance of breeding familiarity with an audience, resonating with them, and gaining enough trust to have them buy products or services, donate, raise funds, or volunteer.
These are people who are used to ‘acting’ when they write – writing in a style that isn’t natural to them (but becomes so): a style that isn’t their own.
When you have any old member of staff writing your copy or content, you run the risk of them simply writing as themselves i.e ‘Jack, from Accounts’ will write as Jack, from Accounts… ‘Brenda, from Health and Safety’ will write as Brenda, from Health and Safety. Neither of them will write as [insert name of organisation here].
They won’t do this on purpose, and it’s not a slight on their intelligence. It’s just not their core skill to write as anyone other than themselves. Jack is brilliant working in Accounts, and Brenda has supreme knowledge of Health and Safety… but they don’t have the marketing nous to write in a tone that isn’t theirs.
Similarly, a Marketing/Comms/Creative team may know bugger all about Accounts or Health and Safety, but they’ll know how to stick to the organisation’s tone of voice.
If any old member of staff writes your marketing collateral, be prepared for your audience to not have a clue who they’re receiving a piece of marketing comms from (and / or not respond).
It comes back to my original, ham-fisted analogy: if you had a date with someone and they were different each time, you wouldn’t continue to engage with them – the relationship would end.
It’s the same with your organisation’s tone of voice. If you don’t have one; if you have one, but don’t stick to it; if each piece of marketing / or each platform comes across differently; if you let any old sod have a crack at writing your copy/content, or you don’t have ‘brand guardians’ … then people – your audience – will disengage with your brand. They won’t know who they’re speaking to / who’s speaking to them, each time, and they won’t build any relationship with you or your organisation.
If you want to build relationships with customers/clients/donors/volunteers, long-term, then you have to speak with one, consistent, instantly recognisable voice… and you have to stick to it – with only a handful of people responsible for this.