“It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.”
How many an argument has started that way? A number too great to count, I’m sure.
The thing is, it’s true. Tone of voice is critical to how we humans communicate with each other. It’s also a key part of your brand. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the cornerstone of your verbal identity. Forget great copy, forget wondrous words, if there’s no consistency in your brand tone in the first place, it’ll jar in your prospect’s mind.
Today, we’re not going to hell, we’re going to the Hundred Acre Wood. Because folks, tone of voice is best explained by the enduringly popular children's novels, Winnie-the-Pooh.
Sandwiches, Hunny and Pooh sticks at the ready? Let’s set off.
The Hundred Acre Wood: space for many voices
There are numerous characters inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood, some of them more lovable than others. But let's not hold that against Rabbit, I mean, anyone.
How would you describe the different characters’ voices? I’ve picked a handful as examples:
Rabbit - harassed, impatient, self-important, fretful
Pooh - serene, patient, accepting, collected, friendly, kindly
Tigger - enthusiastic, optimistic, excitable
Eeyore - melancholy, self-deprecating, shy, retiring
What do you notice about each of the different voices?
The tone of voice of each character isn't simply a way of speaking. It reflects their personality, their character. It echoes their behaviour and helps create a sense of who they are. You can't imagine Tigger saying morosely, "Thanks for noticing me..." or Eeyore booming out, “TTFN!”
Understanding tone of voice: your guide
Let’s look at what Winnie-the-Pooh can teach us about business communications.
In the rest of this article, I’ll cover some key questions about tone of voice:
Why a tone of voice is needed?
How to develop a tone of voice?
Who can create a tone of voice?
Won't another party impose their tone of voice?
I’ll explain the answers to the questions above in light of what we’re observed about Pooh and his friends.
1) Why a tone of voice is needed?
To distinguish your brand from others.
There are hundreds of printing companies, thousands of consultants, oodles of coaches and several hundred grosses of copywriters. Sorry guys.
Unless what you do exists in some sort of cultural and commercial vacuum, there’s probably someone doing something similar to what your business does. So, what do you do? You get your visual brand sorted. You have original photography taken. You get a website and you nail your service offering. All of those things help distinguish you from A. Another Professional down the road.
But what about your verbal identity? Your tone of voice does for you verbally what a logo does for you visually.
2) How to develop a tone of voice?
You need to start with a clear idea of who you are as a business. Whether you're in a company of one or 10,000, all organisations have a personality. If your brand ethos, purpose, values, vision and mission, aren’t sorted, you'll find it hard to create a brand tone of voice.
That's not to say that you can't start with a super strong, unique tone of voice and work backwards. Hell, that’s what columnists and television personalities do all the time. But you’re neither. Starting with the voice is a bit like trying to launch a missile into space; you might be able to cobble together something with enough rocket power to take you to Mars. But you'll probably have a better result, save a lot of time, effort and money by putting in some considered R&D, trial, error, small tests, refining and revising. Then you'll have a super-duper, sleek space vehicle to cruise you around the galaxy. Or to nip down to the Hundred Acre Wood for fresh supplies of Hunny. Whatever floats your boat - or launches your rocket ship.
Get all of the brand basics in order first. Then look at how your business values can be expressed through language, tone and style. Yep, all those things feed into your tone of voice too. “TTFN” could only really work as a Tiggerism. “Ohhhhkkkaaaaaaayyy” wouldn’t sound right from anyone but Eeyore. The choice of language and your business writing style add up to create an overall impression, a rounded tone of voice, so don't forget those elements! And make sure you document your tone of voice so that anyone in the company can access it.
3) Who can create a tone of voice?
A copywriter can help you with that.
4) Won't another party impose their tone of voice?
Nope. Writing in a different tone of voice is a skill, a skill that professionals hone through constant use. Your copywriter isn't there to impose anything. They'll initially help create the space for the juices to flow. Then they'll put in place the structure to capture that creativity.
It's a bit like an impressionist taking off Winnie-the-Pooh characters. The job of the impressionist is, of course, to tell a story and connect with people. There’s more to it though, because while creating something original in someone else’s voice, the impressionist also has to get out of the way and let the voice of the character shine through. In doing that, all of the character's mannerisms and their personality carry through and the whole experience is what connects to the audience.
Don’t fret about your tone of voice – it’s not as scary as it seems
Look, I get it. It’s hard to hand over control. To let someone else in without the fear that adding another person to the mix will complicate things further. You’re not Winnie. You’re not a silly old bear. You’re a smart, switched-on professional with buckets of wisdom to share. And I know that you’re probably motivated by something more than Hunny, but I promise you, get your tone of voice sorted and life’ll be sweet.
Your words matter,
The Weekly Writing Reflection
Each week I share an inspirational quote and a writing prompt. The idea is for you to spend a moment doing some active reflection through writing.
I’ve not wandered far from the Hundred Acre Wood today, and we’re sticking with Pooh Bear. A man truly after my own heart: always concerned about the next meal.
‘It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”’
- Winnie-the-Pooh, of course! 😉
And your writing prompt (if you need the food for thought):
Lunch is a meal that...
What’s caught my eye this week
Each and every week I’ll share a few snippets of inspiration, thought-provocation and jubilation. Hand-curated delights, selected by yours truly to stimulate your mind and soothe your soul.
An eclectic mix this week. Enjoy!
You're the Tin Man, whether you know it or not – This beautiful (and short) podcast captured exactly what the Tin Man wanted – my heart. Listen for yourself, it's lovely. Many thanks to Diane Wyzga.
Beginner's mindset – A thoughtful and engaging reflection on the joy of practice, training and finding a sense of beginner's curiosity in whatever you do. Thanks to Emma at BrazilArte for this lovely piece.
Because we all need to laugh at the absurdity of it all sometimes – If you haven't stumbled across the Action Cookbook newsletter yet, I suggest you check it out. A witty and highly entertaining take on the coronavirus' impact on pop culture as we know it.
That's it for this week…
Know someone who could learn a thing or two from Pooh? Please share this post with them. And if you think this newsletter could be helpful to them generally, do encourage them to subscribe. I can’t guarantee Pooh and friends every week, but I promise not to spam. Ever.