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Courier Workshop episode 2: Tone of voice

Courier Workshop episode 2: Tone of voice

Courier Workshop Weekly

When it comes to building a brand, one critical aspect is often overlooked: tone of voice. We speak to two communication managers at two very different companies about how they apply it to their businesses – and get some tips on how you can develop your own.

AMIRAH JIWA: From Courier, I'm Amira Jiwa.

DUNCAN GRIFFITHS NAKANISHI: And I'm Duncan Griffiths Nakanishi.

AMIRAH: And welcome to Courier's Workshop podcast. 

This bi-weekly show running in sync with our Workshop newsletter focuses on one aspect of running a business that you may or may not know much about – and explains how it could be useful for you. Over the course of the show we'll delve deep into a frankly dizzying range of topics. But always with the aim of getting you just the right amount of info that you need to help apply what we're talking about to what you're working on. I'll be speaking to the experts with practical tips and the founders with relevant experience.

DUNCAN: And I'll be explaining essential terms and summarising the key takeaways at the end of the show.

AMIRAH: This week, we're focusing on an aspect of your brand that you might have overlooked, but should carefully consider – tone of voice. Your business’ tone of voice is essentially its personality, how it sounds to people across all of your comms and messaging. It determines how you speak to customers online, the messaging on your packaging, or in your product's UX, and all your captions on social media. A distinctive tone of voice that's deployed consistently helps reinforce all other aspects of your brand. And it helps you build an emotional connection with your customers. 

I spoke to two communications managers, one at a massive company and the other at a small startup that recently launched on Kickstarter. They both emphasised that a successful brand voice is actually one that sounds human.

LACHLAN ANDREWS: I think it's always really important when you first kind of set out to build that brand voice that you can think about it as a human. And I think what companies can get wrong when they're building a brand voice for the very first time is thinking that it's a non human voice.

LOIS MILLS: You know, you see a nice brand once, are you going to remember it tomorrow? No. But if you think about your own personal life, do you remember that really compelling conversation you've had? Yes. Do you then tell that story to a friend? Yes, probably. So I think words and conversations just for us as humans are so so important. And for a brand to think like a human – it's run by humans, so why shouldn't it think like humans and behave like humans?

AMIRAH: How do you make a brand sound more like a human? First up, here's Loïs Mills from Homethings – a direct-to-consumer brand that launched in May offering eco-friendly cleaning products. Homethings' tone of voice is an essential part of its brand, even more so than its visual identity is.

LOIS MILLS: When we started Homethings, I would say we definitely over indexed maybe on our tone of voice and our brand story, and really put all of our weight behind getting that right first. 

I think any brand can look good. Especially now we live in such a visual world, you know, everyone's on Instagram, people go to brand agencies and say, ‘I want it to be instagrammable.’ That's fine. But I think you have to have that rooted in something because otherwise you have a brand that ultimately is a little bit vacuous and a little bit empty and can't hang its hat on anything.

AMIRAH: What is Homethings' tone of voice? What are the key personality traits that you've chosen to define it? 

LOIS MILLS: For us, I think it was really important to make sure that we had not only a tone of voice that was relatable, but that was also slightly humorous. I think rather than being that scary aunt who's always looking down on you, or who you're a bit too scared to ask a question, we wanted to be almost like that friendly person next door, who could pop round for a chat and like maybe have a little bit of banter every now and then. You're not afraid to challenge each other, but for the greater good, rather than always being a point scoring thing. So what we've done is boiled it down to four words. So we've got challenging, dry, current and activating.

AMIRAH: And how do you make sure that everyone on your team gets your tone of voice and is consistently using it?

LOIS: There's some things that we collaborate on as a team and people put their impact in and have a review. We always go back to these and it's so funny, there'll be so many blog posts that I'll write and I'll put on a Google Doc where everyone can suggest and comment. It looks like a very annotated piece of work. And comments that we see flying around all the time is, ‘Is this sentence challenging? Is this point activating?’ And I think just using those four pillars, in our own internal vocabulary, is how we can build it in to be an integral part of working for Homethings. And so I guess it becomes second nature. I mean, the amount of times I probably say, ‘Is it activating? Is it dry? Is it challenging?’ without even realising it. Like to an outsider, they might think, ‘Gosh, you obviously know no other words.’ But I think for us internally as a brand to make sure we're always talking in the right way, we need to make sure that, internally, we're talking in the right way as well.

AMIRAH: But tone of voice isn't just important for small startups. It's also essential to businesses operating at scale. I spoke to Lachlan Andrews at Canva. Canva is an online graphic design platform used by 30 million people across 190 countries. Canva set out to make it easy for anyone to create cool graphic assets. And its tone of voice reflects that.

LACHLAN ANDREWS: When we set out to first build it, we thought about what are three personality traits we could give to this voice? And we ended up coming up with that we would be human, we'd be empowering and we'd be inspiring. So anything that we talk about and the language that we use, whether it's in the product itself, in-app dialogues, in-app messaging, or whether it's in a media release, or our social media posts, it all draws back to those three things, and also our overarching mission of being able to empower the world to design. So it's a very empowering tone of voice. 

Over all of that, we've got a set of brand guidelines that talk about what we want people to know, think and feel when they hear about Canva. And from our perspective, it's always about if our content appeared without our logo being next to it, would people know that that content was coming from Canva? 

AMIRAH: And when it comes to these brand guidelines, how have you structured them so that people can actually use them? What are the key pieces of information that you've included in them?

LACHLAN: Yeah, it's actually a Canva presentation. And we kept it succinct on purpose. And one of the points in there is that we are succinct where we can be. And we avoid jargon just for the sake of using jargon. But in terms of its structure, it was designed so that whether you're an engineer, whether you work on the marketing team, whether you work in HR, that tone of voice would be relevant for you and your role at the company.

We actually built up a brand voice chart, which has kind of the dos and do nots of what our brand voice would be, and each of those pillars, for example, where human pillar talks about how we're empathetic rather than insensitive, how we're very real, but not over the top. And then it has examples of product messaging, but also in-app notifications, and what that would look like.

AMIRAH: We often think about tone of voice being used on your packaging, on your social media... But at Canva, it's also really essential to the product itself. Where can we look to see this tone of voice in action on Canva?

LACHLAN: For example, something that even I find fascinating going into now is the error messages that pop up from time to time, or the suggestions that might pop up in the product itself, or things like upload limits being reached or file size messages – we've done a good job of making sure that those aren't technical messages, but that they're very human – an eight-year-old or an 88-year-old could understand the different in-app messages that we have. What you'll find in there is kind of a dialogue warning. And you'll see in a lot of apps, it might say something like: ‘Warning, you've reached the limit for this function.’ Whereas for Canva, it would be something along the lines of: ‘Hey there, font lover, we're just letting you know you've reached the limit of this, you can already use any of the images that you've already uploaded,’ for example. But I'd also say have a look at our social media and the way that we talk there. The social media team have done a really good job of building up a community of evangelists. It's not just a social media page of really communicating product updates, but one where they're really purposefully teaching people, not only the power of design, but how they can do it as well. So yeah, I think two really good places to have a look at what our tone of voice looks like would be the product itself, but also things like our social media.

AMIRAH: If listening to Lachlan and Loïs has convinced you that you need a tone of voice for your brand, but you've no idea how to find yours and make it sound like a human, don't worry. We spoke with some experts to get practical advice on how to develop a tone of voice in-house. Here's Kate Hamilton and Emily Ames, co-founders of Sonder & Tell, a creative agency in London that specialises in brand story, tone of voice and creative copywriting. So to kick things off, what is a tone of voice? Why do brands need one?

EMILY AMES: Tone of voice is kind of this written expression of your personality and a written expression of your brand values. But it's also a really strong way to stand out in a crowded market. And I think, especially for startups, crafting that voice and that personality that stays consistent – I think consistency is basically the biggest thing that we have to sell with tone of voice, because it's so crucial as you start building up an audience, and as you start sending emails, sending more newsletters, all of that stuff. If you don't have a consistent tone of voice, people aren't going to trust you as a brand. 

And then I think the other side of it is when people have invested loads of money in design and logos and have gone through all these amazing workshops to kind of figure out what their design is and what colours represent their brand – to then not invest in doing your tone of voice either from a time perspective, or from a money perspective, it's really cutting yourself short because words are everywhere with your brand. And if you kind of have this beautiful website, but the words fall short, you're not putting in as much as you could for your brand.

AMIRAH: Often when people are thinking of brands with a tone of voice, they think of ones that have a really funny tone of voice or a playful one. Can you give an example and kind of break it down of a brand with a more understated or grown-up tone of voice, so our listeners can hear how one of those comes to life? 

EMILY: I think there is this tendency to think that with a tone of voice, you need to be witty or playful. And I think the Oatlys of the world and obviously Innocent have made that the go to. But someone like Sonos – tagline: a better way to listen – they always talk to their customer. So on their playlist they say: ‘Soak up a unique blend of dreamy, psychedelic indie pop, inspired by the sunshine and folk of Southern California.’ So it's just very descriptive. And it's a bit sensory, obviously, because they're a music brand, but it talks to the customer. So it's like: ‘Start your sound system, answer a few questions to find your next speaker.’ And I think those brands that just consistently talk to their target audience and make the customer the hero of all their communications, those kind of people, it's not an intimidating tone of voice, it's just super consistent. 

AMIRAH: OK, we're sold – every single brand needs a tone of voice and personality, But how do they actually develop one? You know, obviously, there are agencies out there that can help like Sonder & Tell, but how can a scrappy startup that's trying to do it in-house get started? 

KATE HAMILTON: I think brands can start with a bit of a brainstorm, start with getting the kind of nuts and bolts of your brand down in words, almost not worrying about the creative part yet. So if you start with thinking about your target audience – who they are, what kind of demographic you're trying to capture, how they might be talking, what language they're used to engaging with, and also look at your competitors. So, the kind of language that they're using, are they occupying the space? Are they trying to be funny and witty? And is there then room for you to take a slightly different tone to them? I'd try and get some of these points down. 

Also look at things like your product truth. So what actually is the role your product is playing for your customer? And as a brand, what are you offering them? What kind of world are you inviting people to play a part of? 

So start really by looking outside of yourself, and then look inward. So start with your target audience, and look outside to your competitors. And then start looking inside and get down to the nuts and bolts of your brand and what's actually true about your product, and your brand service. So that's almost meeting number one. And then after that, you can look at getting a bit more creative. And we often like to bring bits of stimulation into workshops because it's easier for people to respond to something that's live in front of them. So, bring a piece of copy from one of your competitors, or bring a piece of writing that someone really likes and ask them to explain why they like it and what's spoken to them. Even if it's an Instagram caption or a long read that they've liked – get people thinking about language and how it affects their perceptions of what they're reading. 

EMILY: So it's figuring out what you also don't like about the way that people speak in your industry and trying to figure out how you can change that. Just like you do with a product – why do you create a product? You create it because something doesn't exist that you want, and it’s the same for tone of voice – if that voice doesn't exist in your industry, the kind of friendly voice or the eccentric voice or the rallying voice. Then how could you adopt that role?

AMIRAH: And once that brand’s done a good brainstorm, they've come up with those key elements of their personality that they want to communicate, what do they do next?

EMILY: So once you've got those personality words, whether they're ‘nostalgic’, or ‘rallying, or ‘colloquial’ or ‘eccentric but refined’, you actually need to figure out how those personality words translate to writing. So with our tone of voice guidelines, we always like to do writing guidelines. So how do you transform a rallying personality voice into a piece of written content? What words do you use? Do you say, ‘We're all a part of this’ or ‘Let's go together’? Or maybe you use really short sentences rather than long, flowy sentences because it makes people feel impassioned and excited. 

KATE: There are lots of things you can do to make your language more accessible and clearer as you're writing from your brand point of view. Things like – Emily touched on taking out jargon, just switching up language to basically write a bit more like you'd speak. Often when people suddenly start writing for a business, they suddenly clam up and think they have to be very formal and say things like 'ensure' rather than just 'make sure', or ‘funds’ rather than ‘money’. So it's just making sure – almost reading what you write out loud and being like: ‘Would I say that as a human being?’ And, if not, then you probably don't want to be saying it as your brand. And it's things like keeping sentences quite short, usually less than 20 words is a good idea, always using the active voice rather than the passive voice. So – ‘we're making a decision’, rather than ‘a decision was made’. 

EMILY: And then also writing a vocab list for your brand. So, everyone else in the industry says this – what do we say? How do we talk to our customers? How do we say hello, how do we say goodbye? Just so that everyone can have that vocabulary list and always be using it is really useful, too.

AMIRAH: We've talked a lot about how brands can use their tone of voice to guide how they speak and how they sound. But should they also be using it to guide what they say? 

KATE: It's useful also to think about the point of view that you want to have with tone of voice. So, yes, your creative personality and how you want to come across. But if you can also occupy a position that makes sense for your brand world and the space that you're in, that will also help lead your communication. 

So, for example, obviously for Patagonia their cause is the environment, but I think having an idea of what conversations you'd like to join or where you can actually add value is also a good way to think about how loud you want to be on certain issues. Because there are so many communications out there, a pressure for brands to try and join all of them. But I think part of a tone of voice exercise is figuring out what you can add value to and where you want to stand out and shout about something you want to stand behind.

EMILY: I think, as we said, your tone of voice is the expression of your values. And I think your values should, obviously, be part of your purpose. I think if you have a really strong purpose, it's figuring out what the best tone of voice would be to express that purpose.

AMIRAH: Thanks to our guests, Kate, Emily, Lachlan and Loïs for joining us on today's show. Here's Duncan to wrap up what we've learnt. 

DUNCAN: Number one – having a human voice is key. The starting point for that can be as simple as listing three or four human traits that best sum up your brand personality. And these don't have to be too complex or ambitious, they're there to be a support and a reference and checked across all your communications. No matter what form of communication that might be. 

Number two – consistency is so crucial. It might not be right for your business to have a strong, irreverent or witty tone. But if you're speaking to your customers one way on Instagram, and a completely different way in a customer service email, it'll affect the trust you're trying to build. 

Number three – your editorial guidelines can be laid out in various formats, but it's important that anyone at the business, no matter what department, can access and understand them. Using actual examples of vocab and sentences that you do or don't like can help that process. These editorial guidelines are an evolving thing, a living part of the business that need to be honed over time and practised. 

We've got more on tone of voice in this week's Workshop newsletter, which is running in sync with this podcast. It's a succinct, snackable summary of some of the things we've spoken about today. Along with some tools and resources that you should find useful. You can sign up for that at

AMIRAH: And as always, if you have any questions or ideas for this podcast, drop us an email at Workshop's back in two weeks.

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