Tone of voice is a foundational element in a B2B brand, as important as the visual look and feel. But too often it is ignored, overlooked or abused. The quickest way to trash your B2B brand, as a marketing professional, is to lose control of the company voice. So how do you get and keep control?
At this year’s CIPD Learning & Development show I saw an interesting presentation from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama called ‘building gravitas’. The college trains individuals in business to project more presence, impact, confidence and charisma in the way they communicate.
It set me thinking about B2B companies and how many of them could do to project a bit more of all these qualities. The biggest hallmark of success in creating a powerful brand identity for a company is that its audiences comes to attach to that brand qualities of individuality, distinctiveness and effectiveness in the same way that they do with famous or charismatic individuals.
Voice is character
If I say Barrack Obama, or Stephen Fry, you will automatically summon up a bunch of characteristics and attributes, among which will almost certainly be a voice. You can probably hear that voice now, talking away in your head. Voice is character. The Royal Central presentation was actually a voice workshop – acknowledging the fundamental importance of voice in establishing and projecting identity.
Every company has a voice. Whether they actively seek to control it or not. You hear this voice in their written communications, marketing literature, YouTube videos and blog posts. The way a company talks to you can tell you a huge amount about the character of that company. Its values. What it might be like to have a commercial relationship of some kind with that company. Whether you trust them.
Too many B2B companies fudge this job and have inconsistent, or overly generic voices. If I don’t get a constant tone of voice from a company – if its tone of voice varies from hysterical shouting in capital letter, to sub-literate inconsequential mumblings in Comic Sans, then I probably won’t want to listen to them for any longer than I absolutely have to.
If, on the other hand, the voice of the company speaks clearly and understandably about things that concern me – doesn’t insult my intelligence, or talk over my head – doesn’t waste my time by waffling but gets straight to the point, then I am going listen. I will probably prick my ears up the next time I hear that company talk, because I know it will have something interesting to say. I might even seek its messages out.
When we talk about things like content management and thought leadership, this is what we are really trying to achieve. To have a constant, powerful voice; to radiate distinctiveness, confidence – and maybe even gravitas.
Five tips to a stronger tone of voice
So how does a company achieve such a voice? And having got it, how does it maintain its voice – i.e. stop it being diluted or garbled? This is too big a subject to nail in one blog post, but here are the mandatory five tips to be going along with.
1. Define it. Start by recognising tone of voice as fundamental dimension of the brand; making it explicit what that voice is, and is not. Style guides are helpful with this, and example passages of what is good and bad.
2. Defend it. Marketing has to take ownership of the tone of voice, and guard it as jealously as it looks after its visual brand (logo, look-and-feel, etc.). As a marketing manager you wouldn’t let a printer or a web designer play fast and loose with your Pantone numbers or RGB values, and you ought to have the same degree of watchfulness when it comes to the company voice.
3. Resource it. A great deal of the activity in content marketing can be automated nowadays, but writing and editorial skills can’t – if you don’t have them in-house, hire them in. Recognise that just as a visual designer knows more about form and colour than you, good writing is a high-order craft skill that needs to be sensitively managed.
4. Distill it. Remember that the less copy there is to edit, the easier it is to exercise control, so keep things as brief as you can – write less, but write better. To quote Salman Rushdie (full disclosure, he might well have pinched this from someone else) compression adds force.
5. Refine it. Ring the changes. It’s easy for a nailed-down content platform to get stale, so the great skill with tone of voice is varying and improvising within a well understood range of parameters.
If you already do those five things, well done: you’re probably head and shoulders above your competition. But if you’re struggling – well maybe it’s time you gave me a call.