Tone of voice is one of those topics where everyone talks a lot about how important it is, but not a lot about what it actually means. Your marketing team might collectively agree that you want a casual yet informative tone for example, but what does that actually look like and how do you achieve it?
I’ve found that people tend to think tone is limited to the language you use, but there’s so much more to think about than just vocabulary. Here are ten factors that contribute towards your overall tone of voice:
Sentence length and structure – long, convoluted sentences tend to give a more formal tone to your content, even if you aren’t using particularly advanced language. Short, snappy sentences can sound more chatty, so consider your sentence length and whether it works with your desired tone of voice. It sounds obvious but humour me, it has a huge impact.
Punctuation – again this probably feels a bit ‘back to basics’ but it’s easy to underestimate. Exclamation marks in particular can change the feel of a sentence entirely and are generally more suited to the more relaxed end of the spectrum. On the other hand a semicolon can quickly shift your copy to sound more formal, depending on its context, so always review your punctuation choices carefully and consciously.
Use of contractions – a really straightforward way to make your writing sound more or less formal is by your stance on contractions. Opting for ‘it’s’ instead of ‘it is’, or ‘you’re’ instead of ‘you are’ instantly makes your copy more relaxed. Having said this, you can still make contractions work in a formal tone. In fact, avoiding them entirely can affect sentence flow, create awkward and stilted sentences, and (in my humble opinion) read a bit like a school essay.
First, second or third person narrative – copy using third person narrative (he, she, it, they), will almost always sound more formal than using first person (I, we etc), or second person (you). If you’re aiming for something friendly and personable, then first and second person narrative works best.
Passive or active voice – In the passive voice, the target of the action is the main focus, and the verb acts upon the subject. To use a primary school example, ‘the cat was chasing the mouse’ is an example of active voice and ‘the mouse was being chased by the cat’ would be passive. If you’re trying to create an energetic, dynamic and direct tone of voice, you’d opt for passive voice.
Adherence to grammar ‘rules’ – grammar is a nuanced beast. While there are certain rules you can’t play with, such as capitalisation, spelling or the use of apostrophes (although believe me I’ve seen people try), there are other areas where opinions have changed over time. For example, I grew up thinking that starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ was punishable by death, but now it’s all the rage. As long as you’ve got a good grip on which rules are up for grabs, doing so can help create a certain personality to your writing. In my (again, humble) opinion though, it’s possible to go too far with this and sound like you’re trying a bit too hard.
Typography – two identical sentences can feel radically different when using bold, italics or underlined words. I’d advise using them sparingly though.
Literary techniques – various literary techniques, from metaphors and similes to the use of imagery and alliteration can take you both a huge step towards, or away from your intended tone. Word of warning: it’s difficult to use the latter extensively without sounding like a GCSE creative writing exercise (the opinions are coming through thick and fast now).
Language – as you see there are many contributing factors towards cultivating a particular tone of voice, but language is of course still one of them, and an important one at that. Different words evoke different emotions, and can either resonate with your audience or alienate them. Pay attention to your choice of words, how colloquial your language is, and whether or not you use slang, when aiming for a particular tone of voice.
Remember though, if you’re relying on vocab to achieve your desired tone, you’re doing it wrong! (And yes I did use that exclamation mark deliberately).