Tone of Voice 101: How to Write Copy That People Can Connect With

Tone of copyYour message is what you’re trying to communicate. Your tone of voice is how you communicate it.

Tone takes a statement and either breathes life into it… or sucks the life out of it.

It goes without saying, I think, that the tone you should be aiming for is the kind that will breathe life into your copy… bring your brand out of its shell… and help your visitors connect with your brand and offering.

But how do you create that tone?

Is it as simple as sitting down at your desk and putting your Mr. Creative hat on – then letting the proverbial muse take over?

Or do you head over to your competition’s site and mimic – or counter – what they’re doing?

Well, there is a bit of an art to getting a tone right, so the muse may come into play (unlike anywhere else in web copywriting).

And knowing how your competitors are communicating with their visitors can be useful, too; go do a content audit to get started there.

But, that said, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that…:

Your paying customers can help you find and refine your tone.

Recommendation:
Poll your new customers. Send a follow-up “thanks for choosing us”
email within days of a purchase, and ask your customer to indicate –
quite simply – which adjective (of a short list of options) best describes
how they feel about your brand.*

Learning what adjective(s) your customers use most often to describe you can help you find your tone. How can that be? Because nearly every tone under the sun is simply an adjective brought to life. Your tone can be nerdy, romantic, condescending, patriotic, joyful, shocking, cool, happy, foolish, funny, formal or flirty. Those are all, of course, adjectives. They are brought to life on the page by combining diction and syntax to create tone.**

Your tone can be anything. Unfortunately, it is most often this one thing: BORING.

B2B copy is particularly guilty of being boring to read… because there’s this misconception that businesses, lawyers, accountants, etc only wish to be informed. As if they are robots. As if they have no emotion, don’t smile at puppies, don’t watch movies, wear uniforms and live in a plain white box. Just look at the copy that is supposed to make Finance and Operations folks want to attend this Oracle event:

Boring B2B Tones - Do you want to go to this event?Now, I’m not a “finance and operations” pro, but I have a hard time believing that the tone of this copy would connect with anyone. It’s entirely factual and informative… which [incorrectly] assumes that people make buying decisions rationally, sans emotion.. I’d venture to say that this Oracle copywriter – who’s probably a perfectly nice person that’s been beaten into submission by one too many Fortune 500 HIPPOs – knows that people are going to sign up for this event because they have to, not because they want to.

So, great, if YOUR visitors HAVE to use your solution, you may not need to invest in a tone of voice that connects with people…

But if YOUR visitors get to make a choice – if they get to say ‘no’ to you – then optimizing your tone makes sense. Why?

Because…:

A great tone can inspire desirable emotional responses in your visitors.

And emotional responses are huge in human decision-making.

As Human Factors International teaches, emotion is one of 3 key considerations when building successful online interactions. Failing to build emotion-inspiring moments into your site can negatively impact your user experience, conversion rate and customer retention. Tone creates emotional responses in your reader, and that’s a very good thing.

What’s extra-fantastic about that is that emotional responses are damn hard for the competition to mimic or steal from you. Once you’ve made your audience feel for you, good luck shaking ‘em! That means tone can be great for attracting and retaining customers… to say nothing of increasing the likelihood that they’ll tell their friends about you. (People remember how they feel about a brand or experience. If they feel nothing, they remember nothing.)

Now, you may be sold on the idea of cultivating a better tone. And, from there, you may come to believe that your tone should reflect your personality – but, IMHO, creating a personality shouldn’t be your primary objective in developing your tone. Rather, you should develop a tone in order to:

  • Enact the value your visitors desire, such as dependability or entertainment
  • Engage your visitors by making your site copy more enjoyable to read (i.e., less like work)
  • Stimulate positive feelings that then become associated with your brand

With those points in mind – rather than simply “creating a personality” – you can see that real business goals can be directly tied to the development of an excellent tone.

“Emotion is the adhesive that, when mixed with trust, equals loyalty.”
The Marketing Power of Emotion – John O’Shaughnessy

People want to feel something. They do not want to be bored. They don’t want to forget about the new brands they encounter. They want to like things – they want to like you.

As a copy hacker, it’s your job to help your visitors feel, to avoid boring them, to help them remember you, and to make them like you. That’s all part of your ongoing goals of 1) increasing their happiness and 2) selling them a better version of themselves. Yes?

So, let’s say you decide that it’s time to work on your tone.

Great. If you do the poll I recommended above, you could come up with any adjective (I can’t possibly anticipate what yours will be). But, whatever tone you decide to experiment with or fully adopt, it may help you to see a few examples of companies that do tone well for their audiences – and to understand the types of tones that can work well for various offerings and brands. Voila:

Tone

Innovative

Who It May Be Right For

Software companies

App firms

Agencies

How to Do It

Be brief, succinct and simply articulate

Use conversational language, minus curse-words and colloquialisms

Let customers/users speak for you (i.e., testimonials instead of marketing messages)

Zuora innovation and tone

Tone

Expensively Elegant

Who It May Be Right For

Spas and salons

Boutiques (even boutique Etsy stores)

High-end items targeted at affluent women

How to Do It

Use lengthier, flowing sentences

Use lots of adjectives… but not many action-oriented adverbs (which give the sense that one must rush, when the wealthy should not be rushed)

Offer minimal details, especially when it comes to functional stuff

Monsieur Fox Store on Etsy

Tone

Energetic

Who It May Be Right For

Exercise programs & gyms

Brands for teen & uni girls

Fun-focused social networks / apps

How to Do It

Use fragmented sentences, action-oriented bullets and short horizontal lines (i.e., lines don’t run the width of the page)

Opt for short, power-packed words – like what you might read in a Batman comic – over overused, bland words

Kate Spade Copy Tone

Tone

Irreverent

Who It May Be Right For

Apps & games targeted at teen boys

How to Do It

Um, watch a lot of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, paying particular attention to how Spicoli talks but steering clear of sounding exactly like a surfer. ;)

Face Swap Me app for iPhone

Tone

Dependable

Who It May Be Right For

Insurance providers

Schools & courses

Hosting companies

Merchant service providers

How to Do It

Use words that feel warm, comfortable and wholesome

Avoid colloquialisms, curse-words, exclamation points or other high-emotion devices

Rely heavily on traditional rhetorical devices, like parallel statements

American Family Dependable Tone

Other Tone Tips

  • Your tone needs to feel authentic, not forced.
  • Beware of attempts to be funny! They rarely come off as funny… and they tend to be embarrassing for everyone when they fall flat.
  • Not every line needs to be tonal. Keep the prominent stuff – like headlines and subheads – tonal, let your inline help messaging be a tad tonal… and let the rest of the copy just be.
  • If your competition is very tonal, you could set yourself apart not by competing with their tone but by pulling back and keeping things simple & straightforward. That can help differentiate you.
  • Don’t forget context and busy-ness! Your tone shouldn’t be so thick that people who are in a rush or on their mobile devices feel burdened by it. Put usability before tone.
  • Avoid inconsistencies. Don’t interject sudden moments of cutesiness in copy that otherwise feels casual.
  • One of Cialdini’s six persuasion principles is Likability – so lean toward a likable-for-your-audience tone rather than one that’s potentially less likable.

Now all of this leads us to the video tutorial of the week.

In this video, see how changing the tone on some decidedly tonal sites changes the way they feel.

(Yes, that’s me in the bottom right corner, looking gloriously un-photogenic. Just press Play already!)

Developing your copy tone is not an excuse to be clever, and it’s not a free pass to go hog wild with your messaging. But, yes, it can be fun – so you should be excited about it.

And when done intentionally and thoughtfully – like some of the examples I’ve shown – tone can help your visitors trust you, believe in you and connect with you… to say nothing of how great it can feel to publish copy that feels less like a robot wrote it and more like, well, a thinking, feeling human did.

~joanna

* If you’re going to do a poll like this, consider going narrow with the adjectives you present as options rather than broad. For example, let’s say that you already know that your brand feels beautiful. Rather than asking customers to indicate whether your brand feels Beautiful, Expensive, Youthful or Romantic – which are really 4 different sets of characteristics – go deep within the idea of “beautiful”, like so: Whimsical, Angelic, Tasteful, Foxy or Breathtaking. If you learn that you’re foxy, well, that’s a more specific and actionable attribute than simply beautiful.

** If you care, “diction” is the words you choose to use, and “syntax” is the way you string your words into sentences and your sentences into paragraphs.

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  • http://www.d2bpg.com Danny Stirtz

    Loved your article. My website copy reads a lot like the Oracle example. We are a management consulting firm. Seems most of us are cut from the same cloth … It would be great to see what you would suggest as an alternate for the Oracle example …

  • Jim

    Well done – beautifully clear and unpretentious. It’s not often you
    find TOV explained in such plain (clear, no-nonsense) English. I’ve read
    so many TOV brand guidelines which clients have paid a lot of money
    for, with the result they end up clinging to them like a bible – and
    putting copywriters into a creative straightjacket. This is a complete antidote to those overwritten, pay by weight, tomes that are too readily
    accepted in the industry.

  • bobbyrav

    Johanna,

    Thank you for this article… It is very hard to find the right tones, i m working for a lifestyle brand in sunglasses and i m wondering which is the best tone to use for our new website…?

    Thank you for your help

    Cheers

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  • http://www.travelblender.com Genevieve

    Hi Joanna,
    I found Copy Hackers through a link from Technori, and I just wanted to say I really enjoy your posts! I worked in marketing for a long time and I was a real copy snob – I don’t know how many times I fought the good fight trying to convince coworkers that words like “curriculum” and “learning gains” are going to be big turn-offs for 16-year-olds. I now have a startup and I write and re-write copy all the time, trying to get just the right tone (I “admire” sites like GrubHub and Modcloth for nailing their tone) and being paranoid that I’m not going to get our branding right on the first try. I look forward to reading more from you – and maybe in the future I’ll be able to have a Copy Hackers review!

    • Joanna

      When I think of how much “diplomatic” fighting I had to do to get my coworkers to cut jargon and boring phrases from copy, it makes me start shaking, and I have to go to my happy place. I agree —- ModCloth is very cool with their tone (it’s consistent across their site, their clothing descriptions and their emails), and I totally forgot about GrubHub!–I haven’t checked that site out in nearly a year, so I will again, thanks to you. Glad you found Copy Hackers and will be sticking around!! :)

  • http://moneymanagement101.com Rob

    Thanks Joanna, I love how you include real world examples to illustrate your points. This post has convinced me to try changing the tone of my sales page (my product is a personal finance video course for young adults). I am going to trying altering the tone from serious to a lighter tone. Most of the purchasers of my product are parents buying it for their college age kids; one of the parents biggest concerns about buying it, is that their kid will never watch the course since they’ll think its going to be boring. So maybe I should make it a dependable, yet fun tone.

    • Joanna

      Sounds like a great reason to experiment with your tone! Let me/us know how it turns out, will you please? Good luck!

  • http://www.cairnsholidayhomes.com.au Nick Marshall

    Brilliant post and video, Joanna – many thanks. I am starting to write the copy for a rebuild of our website and your ideas have really spurred me on. We rent out holiday homes and I have been a little over focused on getting a lot of information across – the details of the homes and so on. I have found that nobody really reads it so I am going to cut back on all that and just let the photos do the talking on details. I am going to spend a lot more effort on engaging my customers. I know that most of them go to the About Us page but I had not realised the significance of that. So I will be more direct and breezy about what we do to make peoples holidays great and why our region is such a fabulous place to live in. So I guess the tone will be kind of excited and enthusiastic. You really have a knack of breaking things down into their component parts which makes it so much easier to make a plan and act on it.

    • Joanna

      Thanks, Nick! I hope it helps —- I understand that the holiday rental market is quite tough… which probably has a lot to do with the competition as well as the tendency of visitors to fly through pages (with so many listings to look at) or make quick decisions rather than sticking around, reading things, etc. And it’s particularly difficult to do “competitor” content audits because you have so many competitors — how can you know where to start, right? At least, I’d feel that way. But it sounds like you’ve got things all sorted and are ready to get crackin’. Good luck!!

  • http://www.actioncoach.com/paragprasad Parag Prasad

    Great lesson Joanna. As with everything you write – better researched, more actionable and higher quality than 99% of the things I read online about copywriting. Your ebooks have been an absolute God sent for my team.

    If you’ve got 2 minutes to spare…

    I run a business coaching/executive coaching firm in London. What tone would you recommend for me?

    I would guess ‘energetic’ with a pinch of ‘dependable’. Would you agree?

    • Joanna

      Hey, thanks, Parag! As for the tone for any biz, I’d recommend you 1) see what your competitors are doing with tone and 2) find out from your past customers what sort of tone they’d apply to your brand and/or to fave brands like yours.

      For an executive coaching firm, I’m sure one of the best places to start will be auditing your competition – because it’s quick and easy. But, with new leads/prospects and new clients, you could always get a sense for what sort of tone they might lean toward by discussing, in an initial interview, who influences them most and what their favorite leadership books are; the people that influence them most likely have websites, which you could then audit, and their fave leadership books are just a click away on Amazon… so you could find ideal diction there. Cool?

      • http://www.actioncoach.com/paragprasad Parag

        Hi Joanna. I’ve only just noticed your reply.

        Okay, that’s great. We did a competitor audit last year (it was one of the exercises recommended in your ebooks I believe!) I’ll take another look at that. There are certain authors that get mentioned all the time by our leads. It’s usually people like Anthony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, etc. – so quite self-helpy, aspirational stuff.

      • Joanna

        Cool! Awesome that you’ve done a content audit. I’m always amazed at how much a content audit can reveal — dig it!

        As for the influencers in the lives of your prospects, it seems to me that it wouldn’t hurt for you to try a tone that feels EXACTLY like Anthony Robbins. Just test it. If you commit to the tone and test it, then you’ll know – with CONFIDENCE – whether that tone is right for your audience (and a good match for your brand + expectations/biases)… or not.