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What is tone of voice? How to establish tone in writing?

Tone of voice refers to how you speak or write. It reveals how you feel about what you are saying. The way you choose to say something can often make a deeper impact than what you are saying. It influences how your message is received and how you are perceived.

What you will learn

  • Tone of voice helps you effectively communicate with your audience
  • It makes you more relatable, recognizable and trustworthy
  • There are 4 dimensions of tone in writing, which can be combined to find your ideal brand voice 

How is tone of voice used in writing

In writing, tone of voice is conveyed with sentence structure, word choice, punctuation and context. When all of these elements are chosen well, they effectively communicate your desired emotional message. When they are not, they can lead to confusion and send mixed signals. 

Apple is a great example of how a brand’s tone of voice can impact customers. The company’s tone is casual, enthusiastic and friendly, but at the same time informative and professional. 

They make their customers feel empowered and valued with their choice of words. This emotional response is what drives their conversions and global popularity. 

Why is tone of voice important in writing 

The tone of voice you use in all forms of written communication, from page titles and calls-to-action to social media posts and customer service emails, showcases your brand’s personality, identity and values. It makes you more human and relatable. 

Establishing a clear tone of voice will help you tell your story. It will help you build trust and authority, connect with your readers on a more meaningful level and inspire loyalty. It will also help you stand out among your competitors and become more recognizable. 

Choosing the wrong tone of voice can alienate your readers.

For example, if you sound overly confident, they may believe you are pushy or arrogant, when in reality you are just very proud of your product.

If you sound too formal, they may perceive you as cold and disengaged, even if one of your brand’s main values is empathy. 

A mismatched tone of voice can also prevent your readers from understanding you.

For instance, if you use a lot of jargon in your writing, but your audience mainly consists of laymen, the communication gap may be difficult to overcome. 

You can use our Content Editor to gauge the tone of voice used in content already published on your topic. Look at the keywords it suggests to figure out what kind of tone might be appropriate. 

Dimensions of tone in writing 

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, there are four different dimensions of tone: formality, humor, enthusiasm and respectfulness. Let’s break them down and see how they can be used in writing. 

Formal vs casual tones

The first dimension of tone we’ll look at is formality. 

Formal tone of voice is characterized by:

  • Proper use of grammar and punctuation
  • Long sentences
  • Complex choice of words 
  • Complex phrases and syntax
  • No contractions or slang
  • An impersonal approach to the topic 
  • A focus on facts 

You should use it when you are:

  • Writing a scientific or technical piece of content 
  • Looking to convey authority and expertise
  • Addressing professionals in your field 

Goldman Sachs uses a formal tone in their writing. Their sentences are long and their use of phrases like “sustainable economic growth and financial opportunity” conveys their expertise.

Their brand tone clearly shows that they are a trustworthy business. It is also perfectly aligned with the expectations clients have in the financial industry. 

In contrast, a casual tone of voice:

  • Uses simpler sentences
  • Has a friendly, conversational, everyday tone
  • Uses contractions
  • Uses slang and colloquial phrases 
  • Conveys emotion 

Casual tone can be used when you:

  • Want to appear more friendly and relatable
  • Want to show your personality 
  • Are addressing a more laid-back readership 

Frida uses their tone to show their brand personality. They are very casual and friendly.

Their goal is to make their target audience feel understood and appreciated.

They achieve this by making the reader feel an instant connection with the brand by using informal constructions. “The who-do-I-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night-cause-my-baby-won't-stop-screaming brand” is a good example of their casual, positive tone.

Serious vs humorous tones

Whether or not you include humor in your writing will depend on the occasion, the medium, and the effect you are trying to achieve. 

A serious writing tone is:

  • Clear and direct 
  • Grounded and sober 
  • Focuses on facts 

Using it can help you:

  • Come across as honest and reliable
  • Communicate your values and goals 
  • Establish yourself as professional, trustworthy and authoritative 

The Mayo Clinic uses a serious tone. They are not overly formal or detached, but they communicate clearly and factually. Their choice of words makes readers feel safe and in good hands. It helps establish trust and authority. 

A humorous writing tone is more difficult to achieve, as humor is highly subjective. It aims to:

  • Make readers feel comfortable and at ease
  • Spark a laugh or smile
  • Create a deeper connection between author and reader 

If you want to make your writing humorous, first think about what might make your readers laugh, then find ways to work their kind of humor into your writing.

Innocent has a humorous tone of voice. They openly make fun of their own mistakes and errors in judgment.

They have found a humor formula that is likely to work on most customers, as they don’t use any cryptic jokes or references. Instead, they make the obvious puns and allusions. 

Engaging vs matter-of-fact tones

Another dimension of writing to consider when choosing the right tone is enthusiasm.

An engaging tone is: 

  • Passionate and effusive 
  • Meant to spark excitement and interest 
  • Casual and friendly 

It should be used when you want to make your audience care about your product or service. 

Rowdy Energy is very engaging with their choice of words. The brand communicates in short, snappy sentences that get customers excited to make a purchase.

They are unapologetic and out there, and come off as a vibrant, dynamic company. 

A matter-of-fact tone of voice is, by contrast: 

  • Objective and straightforward
  • Avoids emotional phrases 
  • Sticks to the facts

This tone is a good choice when you want to let the product or service do all the talking and be judged on its own merit. 

Cisco uses a matter-of-fact voice to describe their products.

They focus on the benefits and expected outcomes, rather than on getting their customers excited about a new router. Their tone of voice matches the nature of their products: useful and reliable. 

Respectful vs irreverent tones

Respectfulness is the final dimension of tone to consider. 

A respectful tone of voice is difficult to define. It is subtle and nuanced, but clearly demonstrates the respect the writer has for their audience.

It’s polite and proper and emphasizes the writer’s values. 

Dove is a good example of the use of a respectful voice. Their choice of words underlines their commitment to customer care. They are clear and pleasant, making the customer feel seen and appreciated.  

An irreverent tone shows that the writer does not take themselves too seriously. It’s casual and conversational, often humorous. It uses slang words, and sometimes even swear words. 

It can be used to establish a rapport with your audience. 

Velocity Partners is very irreverent in their communication. They are not afraid to use the word “crap” to prove a point.

Their tone of voice is used to separate them from companies offering similar services, who often use a more formal, serious tone. 

Combine different tones of voice in your content writing

Most brands combine several tones of voice to achieve their desired effect. As you may have already seen from our tone of voice examples, serious writing is often also formal and matter-of-fact. Engaging content can also be irreverent and it’s also invariably casual. 

In order to find your perfect tone of voice, consider two things: your brand personality and the personality of your clients or customers.

Ask yourself which tones of voice would help you convey who you are and what you stand for.

Then check if they also align with what is most likely to impact your audience. If the answer is yes, you have found the right combination. 

Creating a content style guide and clear brand voice guidelines will help you maintain a consistent tone in all of your writing. Make sure to note the desired tone of voice in your content briefs too. 

Let’s look at a few examples of website copy that has combined several tones well. 

~Pouri’s tone of voice is casual, humorous, even irreverent. They sell odor eliminators, so they can’t take themselves too seriously. It’s an industry that welcomes humor and bathroom puns, which they have taken full advantage of.

They use their witty writing to make customers feel more comfortable about the nature of their purchase. It also helps make the brand memorable.

Invision on the other hand proves that you can be both casual, respectful and engaging. They use a friendly and informative tone. It makes it clear they understand their users’ pain points, and are competent to solve them.

They don’t use industry jargon, instead speak to the widest possible readership. 

Key takeaways

  • Tone of voice is used to communicate emotions and brand values and is more than just the words used
  • There are 8 main dimensions of tone of voice
  • Different tones of voice can be combined to achieve the right effect

Conclusion

Choosing the right tone of voice will help you show your brand’s personality and values. It will also differentiate you from your competitors. 

When you begin writing any piece of content, ask yourself what kind of tone the occasion, topic and readership require. Then choose a combination of the 8 main dimensions of tone that will get your message and emotions across with ease. 

Do you know a brand that uses tone of voice successfully? Tell us in the comments!

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