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The trouble with companies is that they’re full of people, and people insist on having separate personalities and distinct voices. So it’s no wonder that issues of consistency and tone of voice creep into our conversations when we take an honest look at our content. In my Content Wrangler webinar Empower Your Team to Write with One Voice While Still Sounding Like Themselves delivered on Nov. 15, 2017, I discuss the role voice plays in unifying a company’s content strategy. I give suggestions for how you can build a brand voice without sacrificing the individuality of the content creators on your team—including a simple, fun exercise. Read on for some highlights from my talk, including answers to these questions:
  • What does “voice” mean?
  • Why define your brand voice?
  • Who needs to use your brand voice?
  • How do you define your brand voice?
  • How can your writers still sound like themselves?
Or go to the webinar, and listen to the whole hour’s worth for free.

What does “voice” mean?

For a business as for a person, your voice (aka tone of voice) is how you sound, who you are, what you stand for, and how you interact with people as conveyed in language. When your voice is unmistakable, the way a personality is unmistakable, people recognize you not just by what you say but also by how you say it. Elements of voice:
  • Word choice
  • Word order (syntax)
  • Sentence length
  • Punctuation
  • Metaphors
Basically, every choice you make with language—whether or not you make those choices intentionally—contributes your voice. For example, if your brand voice is friendly, upbeat, and casual, you might use the occasional exclamation point. (I could do that right now!) If your voice is more formal, you would stick with periods. When your company’s voice is distinct—that is, when everyone producing content for your brand is speaking with the same voice—your audience will say (as Ahava Leibtag said to Ann Handley last year in her Content Marketing World talk), “I read a piece of content of yours and within two sentences I know you wrote it.” Indubitably. Or… Cool. Or… Damn cool! (Would you say “damn” in your company’s customer-facing content? Would you use an exclamation point? If you don’t know, your company needs to define—or better communicate—its voice.)

Why define your brand voice?

You define a brand voice for several reasons:
  • It gives content creators more confidence.
  • It gives customers more consistency.
  • It gives the company more credibility.
Think of a brand that you love. That brand has some kind of voice that resonates for you. You see something from that brand, and you instantly have a connection to it as though it’s a friend. You have a sense of who is talking. How can customers love you if YOU don’t know who you are? Consequences of an undefined voice:
  • Confusion (internally and externally)
  • Brand erosion
  • Slower time to market
  • Costlier, less accurate translations
How do you quantify the benefits of defining a corporate voice? One way is to survey companies that are doing it. Acrolinx, for example, surveyed over 200 content professionals in companies that manage their terminology. (For their full report, see Terminology Management: How Companies Use the Words and Phrases That Matter Most to Their Business.) The top reasons respondents cited for managing terminology were “to ensure correct usage” and “to help enforce style and tone of voice guidelines.” And the top benefits they cited, as shown in this chart, were “more consistent brand voice” and “less confusion within tech docs due to inconsistencies.”
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Who needs to use your brand voice?

All content creators in your company, including people creating presale and postsale content, need to use the same brand voice. In fact, the presale-postsale distinction is false. Some companies find that documentation brings in over 50 of their qualified leads. So documentation often IS sales literature. In other words, all content that customers see needs to follow the corporate voice guidelines. Why would you want to talk differently after the sale anyhow?

How do you define your brand voice?

You can define a brand voice however you like. Many companies choose a handful of adjectives, that is, describing words, such as “reliable,” “thorough,” outrageous,” and “funky” (not that you’d ever find those four words together in the same company’s voice description). Avoid meaningless adjectives, such as “cutting-edge,” which are so overused as to be unhelpful. Some people call these cotton-candy adjectives because they’re full of air and lack substance. Your voice adjectives aren’t meant to go in the content itself. They’re for internal reference; they support writers in making decisions about customer-facing content.

List your adjective in this-not-that pairs

One way to make your set of adjectives especially useful is to put adjective pairs in a this-not-that structure. This structure gives writers sort of bumpers. Limits. What to do—and what not to do. Example from the Content Marketing Institute voice guidelines:
  • Authoritative but not pompous
  • Approachable but not wandering
  • Informative but not academic
  • Quick-witted and relatable but not corny
  • Entertaining but not inappropriate
Example from the MailChimp voice guidelines:
  • Fun but not silly
  • Confident but not cocky
  • Smart but not stodgy
  • Informal but not sloppy
  • Helpful but not overbearing
  • Expert but not bossy

Try sorting cards

Some companies, in defining their voice, find it helpful to use a deck of adjective cards, such as Margot Bloomstein’s BrandSort cards, to prompt conversation between stakeholders. One common approach is to sort the cards into three piles:
  • Who we are
  • Who we’re not
  • Who we’d like to be
The steps ideally go something like this:
  1. Pick a leader.
  2. Prepare a set of adjective cards.
  3. Gather stakeholders.
  4. Sort the cards. DEBATE!
  5. Document your choices.
This exercise’s value comes not simply in arriving at a final set of words but in having a rich debate, tussling over which adjectives fit or don’t fit your company, learning why your colleagues prefer certain words over others. A lot goes into a successful card sort of this kind. If you want to give it a try with your own team, check out my detailed write-up based on Margot’s methodology: Use This Simple (& Fun) Tool to Design Your Content Marketing Message Architecture.

How can your writers still sound like themselves?

After you’ve defined a brand voice, you’re ready to share them with your content creators. To supports writers in writing with one voice while still sounding like themselves, provide a combination of guidelines and examples. Here’s a model from GatherContent (from their article A Simple Tool to Guide Tone of Voice):
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This model includes four components, each shown in a circle: an adjective (“personality trait”) that describes your voice, one positive and one negative writing example, and the rationale for this choice. Following this model, here’s what the writing guidance might look like (again borrowed from GatherContent):
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Concrete how-to guidance like this gives a team of writers a sense of what everyone’s content should sound like without being overly restrictive.

Watch the full webinar

For the rest of what I had to say on this topic, watch the full webinar here.