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How to write like a professional copywriter: Tone of Voice

Updated: May 24, 2022

A lesson on copywriting from Winnie-the-Pooh

‘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.

Tone of Voice is 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. And once you have a good understanding of Tone of Voice, you’re on the right track to write like a professional copywriter.

So for today, we’re going down to the Hundred Acre Wood. Because folks, tone of voice is best explained by the enduringly popular children's stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. And while Winnie-the-Pooh may not be a professional copywriter, he’s full of wisdom and can teach us a thing or two about how to write in a way that’s true to your business.

Sandwiches, Hunny and Pooh Sticks at the ready? Let’s set off.

The effects of Tone of Voice

Have you ever written a blog, read it back and thought it sounded a little bit… strange? How about a social media post that just doesn’t sound quite right? A marketing email that misses the mark? Perhaps you’ve looked at your handiwork and thought…

  • It’s too formal

  • It’s not formal enough

  • It too corporate

  • It’s too relaxed

  • It’s too dull

  • It just doesn’t sound like me or my business

Getting the tone of voice right when writing copy could just answer your concerns. The right tone of voice takes a corporate newsletter and turns it into something exciting. Tweaking the tone of voice gives something that sounds dull a new lease of life. Once you’ve got the basics of Tone of Voice down, it’s another tool in your kit on how to write like a professional copywriter.

So, now you know the impact that tone of voice has, we need the help of Winnie and friends to explore it.

The Hundred Acre Wood: space for many voices

Numerous characters inhabit 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, 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!’

And just like different characters in Winnie-the-Pooh have different voices, different brands have different voices in the commercial world. Apple doesn’t sound like Microsoft. Skechers doesn’t sound like Allbirds. Coca-Cola doesn’t sound like Dr. Pepper.

Could you imagine Dell using the phrase ‘Think Different’? Or imagine Fanta using the phrase ‘Share a drink with…?’

Understanding Tone of Voice: your guide

In the rest of this article, I’ll cover some key questions related to tone of voice:

  1. Why do businesses need to think about their brand tone of voice?

  2. How to develop a tone of voice?

  3. Who can create a tone of voice?

  4. What if a writer imposes their tone of voice?

1) Why do businesses need to think about their brand tone of voice?

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 business 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.

Get all of the brand basics in order first. Then look at how your brand values can be expressed through tone, language 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 the language and style 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 with that, or you can do it yourself.

If it’s something that you’d like to do yourself, keep it simple. Here’s the quick and dirty lowdown on how to think like a professional copywriter and write your own brand tone of voice guidelines.

i. Identify the brand tone of voice(s) that you like – work out why you like it, what works about it and why, and why it’s appropriate for that business and their audience. Take inspiration from other brands or go over your own old content and pick out things that were successful, or which captured the essence of your brand.

ii. Consider your audience and business goals – what are you hoping to achieve with your business? What matters to your audience? When defining your brand tone of voice, always tie what you come up with back to those two factors. Your brand tone of voice should speak to your target audience. And, ultimately, your brand tone of voice isn’t there for show: it should serve your business and help move it towards your goals.

iii. Choose 3 (max) points for tone, style and language – in your tone of voice guidelines, you’ll have a section for tone, a section for language and a section for style. Choose no more than three points per each section. Any more and you risk overcomplicating things which will make it harder to implement your lovely new tone of voice.

iv. Record your tone of voice guidelines for posterity – don’t keep it in your head! Record your guidelines and store them somewhere accessible so that anyone who is involved with your marketing has access to them. Better yet, train your colleagues and collaborators on how to use them!

4) What if a writer imposes their tone of voice?

Handing over your marketing can be a worry. If you’re a freelancer, contractor or company-of-one, you’re probably used to doing it all yourself! And when you’ve spent time creating your brand tone of voice, you might be concerned that another writer will accidentally impose their own tone of voice when writing your marketing copy.

If you hand over to a professional copywriter or to a marketing agency, you won’t have a problem. 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. 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.

If you’re keeping your marketing in-house, don’t forget to refer back to your tone of voice guidelines. They’ll keep you on the straight and narrow whether you’re writing marketing copy for your website, blog content, social media content, newsletters, case studies, or anything. Have you written something that doesn’t sound quite right but you’re not sure why? Check your tone of voice. A few simple tweaks and you’ll probably find that it all slots into place!

Don’t fret about your tone of voice – it’s not as scary as it seems

Look, I get it. There’s a lot to do when you run a business. Marketing isn’t everyone’s forte and neither is writing. Add all that together and the idea of writing your own marketing copy can be a daunting prospect. But you don’t need to be a professional copywriter to know how you communicate best and capture that as a handy set of guidelines you can make use of over and over again.

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.

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