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Do you need a distinctive tone of voice?

Or, should your ideas do the talking?

That might sound like a strange question. Especially coming from someone who's made their living selling tone of voice guidelines. But the more I find myself talking about tone (or brand language, or verbal identity) the less I’m convinced that every single business needs a distinctive tone. 

To decide whether your tone is the thing that should set you apart, think about what you’re selling and what your clients or customers expect.

Are people paying for your products or your brains? 

For most FMCG brands, having a distinctive tone of voice makes sense. To use a well-worn example, it’s why Innocent still does so well. In the early days, Innocent didn’t just sound different, their chatty tone built an emotional bond with shoppers – making them more likely to buy Innocent’s brand of squashed bottled fruit over a Brand X equivalent. 

When you’re up against a hundred and one other brands all offering similar (and potentially cheaper) products, your language can genuinely give you an edge.

The same is true in some parts of the service industry, where words could enhance or detract from your experience. I’d be perfectly happy for a 5-star hotel or Michelin-starred restaurant to write with a bit of a flourish, for example. In fact, it could make the experience feel even more fancy. (Heston Blumenthal has talked before about diners not wanting to try ‘crab ice cream’ but being perfectly happy to taste his ‘frozen crab bisque’ even though the dishes were the same.)

So, there are plenty of times when having a distinctive tone builds a better bond with readers or makes a service more enjoyable.

There are others, where it could get in the way. If you’re a lawyer or a professional services firm, you shouldn’t need to dress up your services in unusual language to coax us in. It’s your brains we want. What matters is being able to get your ideas across as clearly as possible. 

In fact, if you spend too long trying to master a distinctive tone, there’s a risk you’ll lose some clarity along the way. For an FMCG brand that might not be a problem. For a professional services firm, it could make for good marketing, but stop you converting business when it comes to the crunch.

The simpler your language, the easier it’ll be for your thinking to shine through

Unless what you’re doing is so secretive that you don’t want anyone in the outside world to decipher it, clarity’s important.

That means getting the basics consistently right: getting to the point, keeping sentences and paragraphs reasonably short and replacing jargon and corporate speak with the words people actually say.

Deciding how your business feels about formality is a good idea, too. If everyone knows whether you’re more of a ‘Dear Mr Smith’ or ‘Hi Bob’ kind of a place, they’ll be able to strike the right kind of tone with clients. (In lots of cases, that’s the main thing businesses want to crack when they’re creating guidelines.) But you shouldn’t need lengthy, complicated guidelines to master that. A few clear principles to cover the basics and examples of the language you’re looking for will do the trick. 

Hang on, if I’m just sounding clear, won’t I sound like everyone else?

Behavioural science would say that’s not such a bad thing in the professional services world. As long as you’ve got good people with good ideas who can differentiate you instead. 

On the whole, clients find it easier to choose between similar companies than wildly different ones. From what we’ve seen, all firms are moving towards simpler, client-friendly language. (If you’re not there yet, working on the basics is your easiest way to level the playing field.) So, if straightforward language is what you have in common, why not let the quality of your thinking be the thing that sets you apart? It’s better for clients, who’ll understand exactly what they’re getting. And it’s better for all the interesting, insightful, opinionated people in your business, who can finally step away from the corporate speak and let their ideas do the talking.