I love voice, tone and style guides.
It started on my first day working in content; the style guide I was given was like a printed A4 comfort blanket, giving me reassurance and confidence. My love hasn’t diminished over the years either; I still find them invaluable for writing and editing, and I see them as part of the foundation for a solid content programme.
Despite this, they’re not a part of the content ecosystem that we talk about a lot, and there’s a surprising amount of complacency about voice, tone and style. I regularly come across brands that:
- don’t have a set of guidelines at all
- have guidelines that aren’t fit for purpose
- have guidelines that sit ignored on a shared drive
If you fit into any of these categories, I’d like to try and win you over to my way of thinking. In this post I’ll look at the value of voice, tone, and style guides, and take you through a couple of different processes for creating one.
Why you need a voice, tone and style guide
It’s easy to assume that brand voice just comes naturally. And it may well do, if you have a small central team creating content, who all have intimate experience of the brand, think identically and will never leave the business.
If this isn’t your situation, you need a voice, tone and style guide.
Why? Putting one in place will:
- strengthen and differentiate your brand through consistent use of a well-thought through voice
- promote uniformity in content across different teams, channels and formats
- make working with agencies and freelancers easier by giving them guidelines to create on-brand content
- ensure you create content that is sensitive to and resonates with your audience
- give you a benchmark to judge content against, or refer to in argument over whether title case is right or wrong
The benefits aren’t just in the quality of your content either; they can be financial too. Having a guide makes it more likely that you’ll get content right with fewer drafts, which has an obvious cost benefit.
The difference between voice, tone and style
Referring to a ‘voice, tone, and style guide’ might seem a bit awkward, compared to the more common ‘style guide’ or ‘tone of voice guide’. It’s a conscious decision though, because I think those terms don’t make all the elements you need for a successful guide totally clear. I see tone, voice, and style as three separate elements, which work together in harmony:
- Voice is a description of the unique, distinctive voice of your brand. This should cover:
- Tone is how to use your voice in different situations. In life, we adjust our tone according to who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about, but our voice remains the same. Your brand voice is singular, but you can use it with many different tones. Separating voice and tone means you can be empathetic to your users, and I think empathy is what makes the difference between just meeting user needs and really engaging them. (See Forrester’s customer experience pyramid for more on this.)
- Style is a house ‘style’ for what your writing looks like, for example where to use capitals, how to spell certain words, reminders on grammar, vocabulary. This might also include design elements like how to use, logo, fonts and images.
Structuring your voice, tone and style guide
There are lots of different ways to approach the structure of your voice, tone and style guide. This is the structure of a recent guide I created for a client, that might be a simple starting point to work from:
- An introduction – Start by telling people what the guide is for, how it will make their job easier, and how to use it.
- Voice – Give a set of simple, memorable statements that encompass your brand voice. These statements should cover the qualities of your voice, the adjectives you’d use to describe it, its rhythm, and a list of things that it isn’t. I always accompany each statement with a paragraph explaining it in more detail and showing how to put it into practice.
- Tone – Show people how to use that voice with different tones. Explain the kind of tones that people should use in different scenarios and provide examples. It’s good to talk about user empathy at this point too, and reference any personas you have.
- Style – An A-Z guide including but not limited to: abbreviations and acronyms, apostrophes, bold, brackets, bullet point, capitalisation, colons, commas, contractions, dates, full stops, headings, hyphenation, linking, numbers and figures, quotations, spelling, titles.
- Specialist language – Include sections on any specialist language your brand or organisation has to use. This project was for a children’s charity, so I included sections on the language to use when discussing disability, fostering, and adoption.
For every single rule or statement you make in your guide, provide an example. Always make your examples specific to the organisation, rather than generic. If you want to explain why using the passive voice is a bad thing, it’s much more likely to stick if you use it on an example taken from the kind of copy that people will be dealing with in real life.
How to create your voice, tone and style guide
There are lots of different methods for creating your guide, ranging from quick and low-effort, to more time-consuming and complex. Here I’ve listed two potential methods – one light-touch, one in-depth.
(3-4 days work for one person, plus half a day feedback and review from a colleague)
This is an approach that I took recently for a time-poor client. It meant they got a good style guide in place in under a week.
I started with their existing brand guidelines and values, and spent some time unpacking them and thinking about how they translated into a voice. I wrote up my conclusions as a set of short, definitive statements (e.g. ‘We show, we don’t tell’ and ‘We weigh every word’), with longer explanations and examples.
Next I worked on tone. I used their personas and top user journeys as the basis for a set of scenarios where the brand needed to use a different tone to connect with its audience. I wrote guidelines and examples to how to shift tone in different scenarios and for different users.
Finally, I picked a couple of authoritative style guides (The Economist or Oxford University) and plundered them for the style elements, rewriting them in the brand voice and adding specific examples.
(2-4 days preparing for and running a workshop for key stakeholders, 2-3 days writing up, 2-4 days preparing for and running a user testing session, 2-4 days editing and finalising)
If you’re taking a more in-depth approach, running a workshop with key-stakeholders to establish the key elements of your voice is a great way to start. There are a number of ways you can do this: my suggestion would be to incorporate a card sorting exercise.
You might be familiar with card sorting as a tool in UX for organising information, but it can also be used for branding exercises. In this instance, you would take a large set of qualities your voice could have and adjectives you could use to describe it (trustworthy, fun, traditional, cool, measured, poetic etc) and write them on individual cards.
Have your team sort through the cards, deciding what your brand voice is, what you want it be, and what it isn’t. Next, prioritise the ‘what you are’ and ‘what you want to be’ cards, and check for conflicting ideas (can you be cool and traditional at the same time?). It will give you the basis for your voice statements, it also gives great fuel for discussion that will help flesh them out and make them feel more real to everyone in the room.
From this point, you can write up an initial voice, tone and style guide, as per the steps listed in the light-touch process above.
The next step is user-testing. You’ll need to mock up some pages or key user journeys according to the new voice, tone, and style guide, and recruit some users to give their feedback. You’ll need to be careful to approach your users and ask questions that allow you to isolate feedback on your voice and tone rather than on design or usability. You’ll want to focus on whether your users find your tone easy to understand, and also on how it affects their perception of your brand. Based on their feedback you’ll be able to make necessary adjustments to your guide.
Getting your guide into use
Finishing the writing of your guide isn’t the final step; in one way it’s really just the beginning. You need to get it into circulation and make sure people use it. Sending an email with a link to a Google Doc or an attachment probably won’t get the job done.
Think about what works for your organisation in terms of getting people’s attention and what resources and assets they use most. Some ideas to consider might be:
- beautifully printed and bound copies planted around the office (I find that giving people assets they can hold in their hands is really effective)
- a session to present the guide to everyone
- a well-designed, easy to search online version (this can be public-facing if you like)
- incorporate elements into your templates as a pre-sign off checklist
- looking into what support your CMS has for style guides
It needs to be a real, tangible presence in your content creation process that everyone involved buys into. Part of that is helping people understand that it’s about more than just where to use (or not use capital letters). It’s about creating a single voice for the brand, and an agreement about the right way to communicate with users.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, here are some great places to start:
- Macmillan’s voice guide
- MailChimp’s Voice and Tone
- The Economist style guide
- Oxford University style guide
- Buffer’s voice/tone guide
- Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style
- George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing
- 10 tips on writing from David Ogilvy
Lauren is a digital consultant at Brilliant Noise, a digital strategy and innovation agency. Lauren has worked in content since 2007. Before joining Brilliant Noise, Lauren worked at uSwitch, one of the UK’s best-known price comparison sites, where she was editor for its consumer website, and later led digital marketing for its B2B brands.