This is a guest post by Beth Osborne. Beth is a writer, blogger, and Marketing consultant. Beth works with local brands and national brands, helping them connect with audiences with great content, inbound marketing strategies and social media. When not writing, she loves being with her family, which includes one great man, two spoiled dogs and a chatty cat. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Your company sells a product or service to a business. But businesses don’t make decisions; people do. And what people crave more than ever in the content they consume is that it be simple, genuine and relevant. Audiences desire a human voice; not one that’s filled with superfluous language, jargon or highly technical concepts. Embracing this new shift in content has caused a revolution in voice and tone. Now it’s time for you to rethink yours.
Voice is not what you say; it’s how you say it. It breathes personality into your brand. Through your written words, the character of your business comes through. Your brand’s voice should be distinct and recognizable as well consistent across all channels and platforms. Someone should be able to read your words and know that your brand is speaking. Words matter because when strung together, they create a feeling. Feelings are important and in fact drive most decision-making.
Voice and tone are not stagnant. Great brands evolve their voice to adapt to their audience, the environment, technology and a multitude of other factors. Not evolving can kill brands because it conveys to your audience that you’re disconnected from their needs.
How Do You Create a Distinct Voice?
Your inspiration for your voice should be your value proposition. Your voice should radiate the value you bring to whatever your audience’s challenges or needs are. Start with at least three key attributes. Let’s take these as an example: authentic, conversational and credible. Then flesh these out. What does it mean to be authentic? How will this impact word choice and sentence structure? It’s important to ask these questions and consider implications.
Joanna Wiebe, author of CopyHackers, said this about voice, “B2B copy is particularly guilty of being boring to read because there’s this misconception that businesses, lawyers, accountants and others only wish to be informed. As if they are robots. As if they have no emotion, don’t smile at puppies, don’t watch movies, wear uniforms and live in a plain white box…It’s entirely factual and informative, which [incorrectly] assumes that people make buying decisions rationally, sans emotion. A great tone can inspire desirable emotional responses in your visitors. And emotional responses are huge in human decision-making.”
Sounding Human & Being Simple
Why is it important to sound human? Because being human means being approachable. The best way to starting sounding more human is to realize that you may be a SME (Subject Matter Expert) in your industry, but your audience is not. You may think they know a lot because they’ve been buying services or products like yours for a long time. You’re giving them too much credit. No one else is going to read the content as you do, as an expert. You may have multiple segments of your audience with various knowledge levels. You need to write and create content for all these levels.
Brands are sometimes scared of sounding human, fearing they are dumbing down their message. The reality is that being human and simple in the right way to start a conversation with content and build trust. They trust you more because they can relate to your message.
Dumbing it down is really about simplifying the message. Simpler does not mean unintelligent. It’s a calculated move to impress upon our audience that you know your industry better than anyone and because of that, they can feel comfortable in your aptitude and guidance.
You can say some of the smartest, most accurate things in the world. However, if it isn’t delivered in a way that is digestible by the audience – meaning it is authentic, conversational and inclusive – it simply won’t matter.
Even if you happen to be in a highly technical field, this rule still applies. Look at the evolution of IBM’s brand, especially since they began by focusing solely on B2B. When IBM decided to enter new markets, they knew that they needed to change the way they were perceived if they want to make businesses aware of their new offerings. They evolved their brand voice by realizing that they weren’t talking to computers. They were talking to people. And these people had challenges that their services could solve. They started a dialogue with their audience and became simpler to understand by becoming less formal and more emotional.
When your voice is too formal, it can seem condescending even if that isn’t the intention. How do you make voice less formal? Consider changing your word choice and remove any superfluous words. Also, edit out needless adjectives and adverbs. Mix up the sentence lengths to add variability to your sentences. After all, that’s how we all really talk to each other.
Here’s an example of how you can take a stuffy brand message and make it more casual and approachable:
XYX Company helps organizations use public criminal record information to identify applicant histories that may not be suitable for their hiring strategy. An XYZ Company criminal record check assists organizations with the important task of ensuring applicant histories are revealed and evaluated for the best possible job fit. Furthermore, XYZ Company clients can make confident hiring decisions in an effort to mitigate risk and protect their organizations, employees, and customers.
Company XYZ provides background screening of employees and volunteers for organizations, corporations, schools and nonprofits. Whether you are a retail chain with multiple locations or a local church, we can help you protect what matters.
Dramatically different, right? The first one is long, tedious and addresses their clients in the third person. No one was reading that entire paragraph. It was really stiff and impersonal, not the kind of message you want to send. The new version is short, inclusive and drives home the critical value proposition of helping you protect what matters.
Decision-makers don’t want to deal with brands that aren’t honest. It’s that simple. By being succinct, you’re proving you have nothing to hide.
When Your Tone Should Shift
Remember that your tone can change. While you should strive for a consistent brand voice, your tone should shift depending on the channel, audience or product/service. The least formal tone is typically used in social media. Even there, buyers expect different tones on Twitter versus LinkedIn. With Twitter, more abbreviations and brevity are the norm; LinkedIn tends to be slightly more professional.
For your blog, keep the tone conversational as prospects and customers will be perusing it for tips, best practices and inspiration. You also want to speak to the specific issues facing each of your audience segments, who have different levels of knowledge on your industry and products. For example, you wouldn’t use the exact tone when you’re talking to a social media manager versus a CMO. The product or service can also affect tone.
Being Readable Matters
This is a basic but important tip: Be readable! Being interesting and relevant are parts of this, but what I really mean here is this: look at your syntax. Are your sentences too long? Are there too many compound sentences? I’ve seen sentences with multiple clauses that run for days it seems. And maybe they have a lot of great points. But professional buyers are skimming for the bits of info that matter to them. Don’t let people lose interest because of your syntax.
Stop trying to impress everyone with your vocabulary! For something to be clearly understood by the masses, it should be on a sixth grade reading level. Choose the simplest word possible to convey your point. For example, write “use” not “utilize.”
Jargon is a barrier to good communication unless it’s really how your audience speaks. Every industry has its own jargon. By using the right jargon, it shows your audience that you are an “insider.” But if the jargon means nothing to your audience, using it becomes a detractor. Do your research, listen to your audience, read publications to understand how your audience speaks and wants to be addressed. From your research, create a toolkit of words to use and not to use.
Making your voice inclusive is important. Try writing in second person. It’s more engaging and automatically puts the reader into the situation or story.
Steps to Finding Your Voice
- Focus on your value proposition.
- Determine the key attributes you want people to associate with your brand. Define what each attributes mean
- Do your research: look at industry publications, competitor websites and talk to or survey customers to find out what language they use.
- Decide when tone may change based on product line, audience and channel.
- Document all of this.
- Refresh it every 18 months or sooner if major changes occur in your industry of if you launch a new product/service.
Regardless of how long your brand has been around, voice and tone must be a critical part of your strategy. They are the foundation of every piece of content you produce. If your voice and tone don’t provide your readers a simple, honest connection to your brand, engagement and conversion will suffer. People don’t want to do business with those they don’t trust or don’t like. Having a consistent and deliberate voice allows you to develop, maintain and strengthen that relationship.