Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

One of the biggest branding mistakes that companies can make is to not pay enough attention to their tone of voice.

“Voice” sounds high-minded, doesn’t it? More suited for the literary world rather than the business world? But tone of voice just refers to how you sound in your writing.

In marketing, your tone of voice can be a significant differentiator. (Along with a few other key things.)

It’s a strong advantage, because a lot of companies aren’t yet thinking about it.

Businesses often spend a lot of time on their logo and color palette and other things they think of as “branding”—the look and feel of their website, collateral, signage, fonts, and so on. But very few take the time to consider the branding that a unique voice can give a company. A key question is this:

Mask the logo on your site. Do you sound different, unique—like yourself? Or do you sound like everyone else… including your competitors?

Said another way:

If the label fell off… would people know it was you?

Your tone of voice isn’t about what you say but, rather, how you say it. It’s the impression your brand leaves on your would-be customers or prospects.

Done right, your tone of voice is truly the secret sauce in your content BBQ. Here’s how to develop yours.

1. Define what makes you you.

Marketers call this developing a “brand positioning statement” or sometimes a “mission statement.”

Whatever you call it, the idea is to define who you are, and what makes you you. Or as Dr. Seuss wrote, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Dr. Seuss wasn’t talking about tone of voice. But I like to think he was.


Ask yourself a series of key questions:

  • What’s unique to your business?
  • What’s special about your products?
  • What’s special about the way you do business?
  • What’s your company culture like? Are you buttoned-up or playful?
  • How do your employees relax together? Do you play beer pong in the parking lot on Friday afternoons, or do you have morning yoga sessions every Thursday?
  • How do you want to be regarded by both customers and your community? Are you a trusted source for high-level insight, or a go-to source for hands-on, practical advice?

Come up with, say, three words that best define who you are. Write them down.

“Don’t fall into the trap of choosing trite, non-differentiating factors such as ‘friendly,’ ‘honest,’ ‘reliable,’ and so on as brand values,” says Andrew Bredenkamp, founder and chairman of Acrolinx, a software platform that helps companies hone their tone of voice.

(Related: Read about the science behind quality content in this Acrolinx study.)

Such attributes are just one big duh, or “the least you would expect from any company,” Andrew said. “They may be important to your service, but they won’t help you create a distinctive tone.”

Also avoid buzzwords and clichés (like “cutting-edge” or “proactive” or “revolutionary.”) I call those words blech. But Andrew says (more articulately): “If you’re looking to be different, they put you at a disadvantage right from the start.”

Instead, identify more interesting, specific descriptors that reflect who you really are, and how you want to be perceived.

2. Translate those words into a style.

Abstract attributes in isolation don’t mean that much. So develop some detail around them. Make them real and practical.

For example, if one of your brand values is “creative”—what exactly do you mean? When and how are you creative? What are you creative about? How does your creativity help clients?

If one of your brand values is “unusual”—what exactly does that mean? In what way are you unusual? How does that quirkiness help clients or customers? Do you solve problems differently? Do you have an approach that exemplifies that ideal in the real world?

Flesh out those words with a few sentences or anecdotes.

3. Write it down.

I almost wrote “create a style guide,” but I worried I’d lose you there. The idea of a “style guide” might feel both pedantic and impenetrable to a lot of businesses—especially growing, scrappy ones who think a style guide is about as appealing as a History of  Trigonometric Functions (volumes 1-34). (Side note: Keep reading. Volume 35 is a page-turner!)

But a style guide is important for entrepreneurs and small companies, where the brand voice of your organization grows organically out the founder’s personality and values. That’s great. But what happens when the company grows and a marketing team takes over the writing of the emails the founder used to pen herself? That’s when you’ll be glad you bothered to write all this stuff down.

And it’s important for larger companies, where content isn’t owned by just one or two people. In that scenario, a style guide acts as bumpers on a bowling lane, keeping things on track.

What goes in a style guide? Start simply with some of the basic information I noted above, and add to it from there. You can get as ambitious as you want, but take the pressure off yourself: A Google Doc works equally well, and can be updated easily as needed.

Here’s what to put into your style guide:

Your 3 words.

Your 3 words applied in context.

Pronouns. Too small a thing to consider? No.

Companies tend to be all over the map with pronouns—using the first-person “we” and “us” in one sentence and the third-person (“Abbading Incorporated”) elsewhere. The first person tends to be warmer and create a more accessible tone, while the third-person tends to feel more detached and paternal. Pick one based on your brand voice, and stick with it.

The same goes for your audience, by the way. Use “you” or “customers,” and don’t swap them around so they pop up unexpectedly and startle you: like the scary ghoul who hides under the bed and grabs your ankles.

Jargon. I used to take a hard line against jargon and insider language—I used to say, don’t use it. But lately I’ve rethought that idea, because jargon can signal a shared mindset or can convey a depth of knowledge.

Spell out what jargon and phrases your company embraces and which it does not. And, as with any writing, be sure that its use clarifies rather than gets in the way.

Style guide hack: Adopt a well-known style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Guide or (my personal favorite) the Yahoo Style Guide. Then add your own addendum to it. The benefit of doing it this way is that you’ll have the style basics covered (“email” vs. “e-mail” ) while being able to address more important things like tone. Some other great style guides have been published by Moz, MailChimp, and Buzzfeed. Check them out to steal ideas for inspiration.

4. Sweat the small stuff.

Don’t think about your voice applied in only the most obvious places—like your website copy and perhaps your Facebook page. Tone of voice doesn’t apply only to those things you typically think of as “marketing.” (Everything the light touches is content, remember?)

Ann handley lion king

Instead, think about how you can use your voice as a differentiator in surprising places—on your 404 page, on your email confirmation page, and on your Thank You page, About Us page, FAQ page, product descriptions, and so on.

Here’s an example of tone of voice in action.

So all this talk of voice and tone sounds awesome, right? But how does it actually play out? Can the words you use really help brand you and make you stand out?

Freaker USA manufactures and sells one-size-fits-all beverage insulators—also known as can koozies. Beverage insulation is a pretty boring category. But Freaker USA stands out in part because of its tone of voice, which extends across everything it does.

Here’s how it describes itself on the About page of its website:

Established in 2011 and located in Wilmington, North Carolina, Freaker USA quickly grew to be the global leader of preventing moist handshakes and sweaty beverages. They aren’t just selling you their fit-everything product, they’re giving you an invitation to their party—a starter kit for a new lifestyle. The Freaker isn’t a strike-at-the-wind attempt to get rich, it’s the background music to a never-ending journey. Infusing life, style and functionality into a drink insulator.

Think about that for a minute. Freaker could have described itself with a bit more utility, something like this:

This drink insulator keeps your bottled beverages colder longer, plus folds flat for maximum pocket portability. It fits your bottle or can like a glove and is classier than a brown bag.

Freaker Wine Koozie

In fact, that’s a bit of website copy I co-opted from a competitor koozie’s. But it wouldn’t convey nearly the same bigger brand story, would it? If Freaker spoke that way, you wouldn’t get a sense of what makes Freaker unique.

Remember how I mentioned sweating the small stuff? This an excerpt from Freaker’s email subscription confirmation:

“If you received this email by a whoopsies, simply delete it. As long as you don’t click the confirmation link above, we won’t haunt you with a subscription to our ass-kicking newsletter. You won’t be delivered weekly sales & giveaways right to your inbox. You will never know love. Just delete this email and carry on like nothing here ever happened. OKAY LOVE YOU BYE!”

You might not be as quirky as Freaker USA, and that’s okay.

The point is this, more broadly: What’s your own brand voice? Does it clearly reflect what makes you you?

Is your logo fell off, would you recognize you?

everybodywrites-squareRead more about tone of voice and non-boring marketing writing in the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.

Pick up a copy or 2 (or 20) at Amazon or the book peddler of your choice.


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50 Responses to 5 Keys to Developing a Strong Tone of Voice in Your Content Marketing

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  3. Ray Hartley says:

    G’day from Oz Ann, that’s Australia of course, not the one with Dorothy, Toto et al.
    Love this post and I am sharing it with the lawyers at the firm where I am BD Director. My greatest frustration is that I write for the firm’s positioning which is clear and unlike any other firm – really! Then the lawyers want to change it to something bland and fungible – Yuk! Anyway, this piece from you will aid and abet me in changing their risk aversion. I always appreciate your posts but this one I can use like a Louisville Slugger. Ray

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  9. Fantastic! I’m sharing this on my social networks. Thanks for writing.

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  14. dileepb says:

    wow it is very nice blog flog for sharing us thank you..

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  18. Hansofetch says:

    Great article! Voice search is going to play a leading role in the year 2016.

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  22. Meghan says:

    I think knowing what makes your company unique is so important because without knowing what makes you you, you can’t have a set purpose which is so important when you are creating content you want customers to understand your voice and stance easily.

  23. kheerthana says:

    It is really awesome and it is useful thanks for sharing this post.

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  27. Anna says:

    Great post, Ann! Definitely agree about defining the brand’s unique selling point and identifying what makes it stand out from other brands. From this, one can formulate a voice that will resonate with the target market. I’ve always found honest content compelling.

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  31. Dave says:

    I understand you probably do a million different things and don’t have a lot of free time for proof reading, but as a content writer I was cringing at the plethora of grammar mistakes in this piece. I honestly had to stop reading after finding a third mistake in just half of the blog post. Definitely hurt the authenticity in my opinion. As an expert, I’d think a clean, error-free post would be paramount to successful blogging.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Hi Dave. Yikes — you’re right. Totally firing my copy editor, too.

      I think I cleaned up all the typos. If I missed any, do let me know.

      Thanks for swinging by.

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  33. Chris says:

    Nice post, but I have a qualm about the Freaker “about us” example. The second passage, the plain and utilitarian one, is the one that made me interested in buying the product; that’s because it told me a few benefits, like keeping your drink colder longer. The first passage had more personality, but left me a bit confused. Would an ideal passage perhaps have personality as well as a clearer statement of the product’s benefits?

  34. Atiq Rasel says:

    Content marketing is useful to get attention of audience. Visual content is very important! This article is very useful. I saved it into my bookmarks. Thanks For Sharing This Useful Information .Would come back to visit soon, again Thanks.

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  37. Meleigha Millman says:

    I think that all these points here are pertinent building a strong brand in addition to building a strong tone of voice. By have a strong tone of voice, it creates more of a conversational atmosphere. That setting allows for people to more easily connect to a brand because people can connect emotionally since there is more of a human element to the piece. I think that emphasizing on the human element aspect allows for better brand loyalty and recognition. If this strong tone of voice is created on a social media platform, the human element can be more easy to identify with. That then furthers the whole point of social media because people are meant to connect to each other and to be social.

  38. Erica Muse says:

    Great post! I agree one hundred percent with the style guide, especially for bigger brands. Like you pointed out, multiple people usually work on a large brand, and with no guidelines or consistency, the brand can lose credibility with its messaging. Being consistent with your voice is a huge part of building awareness. Showing the brand personality and company personality makes people connect with it more. I think a lot of businesses could benefit from understanding the importance of a company/ brand voice!

  39. Paulina Famiano says:

    As a senior marketing student, I think this blog was very beneficial to read. It gave me good insights and a different perspective to keep in mind as I enter the workforce.

  40. Kenzie H. says:

    Thank you for yet another good read! Yes, this post is almost a year old but it is something that will be forever relevant. The title caught my eye immediately. As a current marketing student I am always taught that logo, name, branding, etc. are very important. I see that yes they are, but the tone is also! I loved the part where you mentioned that if you’re logo fell off would you be able to recognize you? I think that was so interesting to think about. With so much brand parity today, it can be difficult to differentiate yourself. How a company portrays their tone is huge. It is that underlying feeling consumers will associate with your company. I also enjoyed that you mentioned being direct with explaining your style. It is too vague to just say that your marketing is “creative”. You have got to expand on that. Consumers now desire more from the marketing side and want to know what really does set the company apart. Thank you again for a great article!

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  47. Fran Canete says:

    Great post, Ann! Such a big task is figuring out who “we are” and how to tell our story to the world. At the moment I am enjoying the journey like a child with new shoes! Thanks, Fran

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