Demystifying Tone of Voice

In episode three, we’re talking with Ben Afia – a real guru when it comes to tone of voice. You’ve probably heard that term bandied about.

What is it, exactly? Well, Ben can tell you because he focuses on tone of voice, and what he says is “helping companies sound more human.”  He is the head honcho at Afia, a UK-based firm he started in 2004. Before that, he was at Boots UK as tone of voice manager.

It’s a great discussion. Hope you enjoy.

You can listen above, or read a transcript below, which I edited very lightly.

Mark: Ben, welcome.

Ben: Thank you for having me.

Mark: It’s good to have you here. So, what is tone of voice and why is it so important?

Ben: Well, tone of voice is really how a company, how a brand’s personality comes through in words. So, it’s all about what people write. So everything from the Web site through to the messages you get on a web chat when you’re on with customer service, through to help people sound on the phone.

Mark: So it’s not just collateral. It’s not just a Web site. It’s the whole experience.

Ben: I think there’s a misnomer, actually. I think people misunderstand tone of voice as being something that’s about marketing. And, certainly what I found in the last 15 years or so when I focused on tone of voice is that it’s very much about the culture of the organization and it lives throughout the organization. It has to be not just in your marketing, but it’s got to be in your service, it’s got to be in leadership, and through your internal communication.

Mark: Right. So, like with lots of things like this, you would think it’s about putting out a guideline book. But you say it’s not about guidelines. So what is it about?

Ben: Well, it’s interesting you say that because the common question I get when potential clients ring me up is, “Can you create us some tone of voice guidelines?” Happens all the time. It’s the usual question.

Mark: Then they’ll be done with it they can you know move on to the next item on the list.

Ben: Absolutely. I’ve even had clients come to me and say, “You know, create us some guidelines and we’ll do the rest.” But, actually it’s quite a specialist skill and although many marketing people have some sense of tone of voice–they’re aware of it, they may have even worked on it in the past–there are quite a few pitfalls that you learn when you specialize in it and spend quite a lot of time thinking about it.

Mark: And what are those?

Ben: Well, so one thing that I come across a lot of time is tone of voice guidelines that are based on a brand, on a strategy, that doesn’t seem to relate to the culture. And what I mean by that is, it’s very easy to come up with a strategy that’s based on consumer insight–you know, an understanding of a need in the market–and to design a brand that can help fulfill that need. But it doesn’t necessarily relate to what’s true about the culture. What I mean by that is: What’s the real experience of customers with you and what’s the real experience of people who work for you? Because tone of voice is something that people do. And if they’re not doing it it’s not working. So how do you then encourage people throughout the business who might not be marketing people to adopt it? And what I found is that if you create something that feels true to the culture, feels real, then people actually enjoy doing it because it helps them express the business that they know and love. Assuming they do love it.

Mark: So what kinds of companies do you work with?

Ben: Well they tend to be larger, older brands who have a lot to say, who have lots and lots of customers–both consumers and businesses. They tend to be kind of account-driven businesses, so utilities, financial services, telecoms. So they tend to be big companies that are serving lots and lots of customers. So companies like Vodafone, Allianz Insurance, E.ON the energy company, BP. But also some newer companies, like Google as well, which is interesting and smaller brands like Twinings Tea and Ronseal.

Mark: So what have you done for some of these companies? Can you give me an example?

Ben: Yeah, so, as I say, the sort of question that people come to me with is, “Can you create us some sort of guidelines?” And, as we get into conversation and understand what their situation is, usually they can be going through some sort of change. So they might be going through some sort of culture change. They might be going through a rebrand or a brand refresh. And that’s what kicked off the need for a new tone of voice. It could be that they’re struggling with their customer service and they know that writing and the way that they sound is a big part of that problem. And so what I’ve been tending to do is to start by trying to get an understanding of the organization’s culture and what’s true, what’s real. Once you get a grip on the culture you can then translate that into a brand strategy–and, in particular, a brand personality. Because that’s the bit of brand that you need to develop tone of voice. So once you are clear on the brand personality–and, the other thing is about this is that it needs to be something that is quite exciting. When you when you read it you need to be excited not feel flat. Quite often I come across strategy documents that just feel quite corporate and quite flat.

Mark: Right, and I think they’re intentionally like that sometimes.

Ben: Do you think? Maybe. You know, that’s that’s the thing that I’m against particularly. Because if you have a personality that feels flat, how do you then turn that into a tone of voice that’s really going to connect with your customers and with your people? Because your people are your customers as well. So, once we’re clear on the brand, we then develop tone of voice guidelines, which was the thing that people come to me for in the first place. But it really doesn’t stop there because once you find your tone of voice–and what I mean by tone of voice is some way of describing how you sounds so that people can understand it get a grasp on it but also then individual writing techniques like use shorter sentences, for example.

Mark: Right. So people will want a guideline book won’t be disappointed they will get a guideline book.

Ben: Absolutely. Absolutely. But that’s only part of the picture. And then once you have guidelines you’ve then got to think, “Well, how do we get out into that culture?” So then you get into the behavior-change part of the work and that’s the bit that takes a little bit longer because you have a huge range of audiences–a lot of people who are talking to your people internally and a lot of people who are talking to our customers. So you might start with your marketing teams, PR, internal communications. But then you also need to think about HR because they are writing job descriptions and offer letters and things like that–contracts. You need to think about your customer service, and all the different channels for service–so Twitter, Facebook, web chat, your call centers. So all of those individual channels are all places where your customers get a sense of you, a sense of your brand and what you stand for. So you need to think about how you’re going to reach all of those areas. And that’s the behavior change part.

Mark: So one of the questions I have is this: Amd you and I actually went through a project like this seven-and-a-half years ago, eight years ago, and the first inclination when you’re thinking about tone of voice is that, “Well it’s about grammar, it’s about style.” But it’s about more than that, right?

Ben: It’s much more than that. And, in fact, mostly–certainly in English for native English speakers–it’s not about grammar at all. Now, as it happens I’m just doing some work with some Indian call centers, where the teens are not native English speakers and so there are some problems with grammar. But the thing about grammar–and my take on grammar is–grammar is the common usage. It’s what people actually use day to day. And, so as Brits, as Americans, as Australians, Kiwis–native English speakers–we know how to use our language. We’ve been absorbing it since we were children, even if we haven’t been learning the specific terminology. So, mostly, people don’t make mistakes with grammar. It’s much more about style and it’s about the personality that you’re trying to convey. And the personality comes from the values. What do you believe in? And how are you getting that message to your people and to your customers?

Mark: Exactly. So walk me through Four Steps to Tone Heaven and what are those elements?

Ben: So, we’ve got four boxes. We’ve got Culture. We’ve got Brand. We’ve got Tone and Behavior. And, the idea behind sort of putting these together is–going back to my comment earlier about clients often coming to me and saying can you create some tenuous guidelines for us and we’ll do the rest. What this model is trying to say is that tone is really only one component of that. And what I found over the years is that there are really four things that you need to be thinking about these four areas that you need to concentrate on and unless you consider all of them your chances of developing a tone of voice that resonates around the organization, and actually gets used, are relatively slim. And so I think that many marketers listening to this may have embarked on tone of voice projects–for them not to work. I think that is quite common. I come across it all the time. So these are the four elements I think we need to be thinking about. So the first is Culture. And what I mean by culture is: What is the organization like? What does it believe in? How does it behave–with each other and with its customers? So, for example, if you are working with an organization who are trying to develop a brand personality that’s full of life and energy but actually has lost some customer data recently or is continually letting customers down, you know, those messages are fundamentally in conflict aren’t they? It’s like trying to put lipstick on a pig. You can’t create a brand if the culture isn’t going to support it. So the second box, Brand, has to come from Culture. I don’t think it needs to come from customer insight, per se, which is how brand is commonly developed. Brand and culture are synonymous. And until you understand your culture you can’t develop a brand that’s rigorous.

Mark: It comes from the soul of an organization, right? It comes from inside an organization.

Ben: Absolutely. I think “soul” is quite a nice word, actually, yeah. And, actually, what’s nice about the word soul is it suggests humanity, it suggests heart. And it’s about human beings and it’s about how people feel at work and how customers feel about you as a business.

Mark: It’s a pretty earth shaking concept to some people in corporate life I would imagine.

Ben: I’ve noticed quite a lot in the press–you know, on LinkedIn and such, a lot of articles and lots being written about purpose. So I think that this idea resonates with that and people are more aware and thinking harder about it. And I think what’s brought that on is the rise of the Internet and the freedom of communication that that we have and that customers have with people within businesses. When I started corporate life more than 20 years ago, the PR team could package up messages and throw them over the parapet, as it were, and hope that they get digested. But you had a big wall around the company and people couldn’t really experience what you were really like. But with social media, customers know exactly what you’re like and they’re talking to each other about what you’re like. So they’re talking about your culture and they’re talking about your brand and you have no control over that. The only control you have is through developing a genuinely positive culture that supports the brand that you’re projecting.

Mark: And being true to yourself.

Ben: Being completely true to yourself–absolutely, yeah. So that’s the Culture and Brand and those are really the foundations. And the reason I kind of got them in the top level of this model is because they’re often the things that get missed out. And so then we come to Tone and Tone is really the expression of that in words, the expression of the brand, and therefore the culture. So the tone part is about developing guidelines and I think there’s an art to that as well. Guidelines can be too simplistic. They can be too academic and too complicated. Often they’re written for marketing teams, but actually I think muxing teams will often put up with a certain amount of jargon, whereas if you come to customer service, they won’t. It needs to be usable or practical and applicable.

Mark: It is kind of funny that, in the cause of simplifying the way in which a company speaks with its customers, that the guidelines are often hopelessly complex.

Ben: They are incredibly complex and I’ve just taken on a project with certain financial services company that you’ll know well in the US. And the brand strategy is very complicated and the tone of voice is about 50 pages long. And you know I’m under professional hair and I couldn’t be bothered to read it. You know, you got to create things that people want to read and feel excited about at the end of it. And then, from the tone you don’t get into the Behavior change so that’s the last chunk. And that really is: How do you take the tone and the brand and embed it throughout the organization. And, I had an interesting comment from one client–a telecom’s client some years ago. The brand director said, “You know, I don’t see I have any other way, apart from tone of voice, to get my new brand strategy out into the whole organization.” And I thought that was a really interesting comment. How do you, as a marketer, take your brand and embed it throughout the organization? Well, tone of voice. For the simple reason that everybody writes–even if they’re not writing to customers, they’re writing emails to their colleagues. You know we’re all writing, all day, every day. So if you can help people to write better, then you are inherently passing on your brand and your values. So that’s where the Behavior part of the project comes. And, I remember one time a few years ago saying, “We’re not just doing tone of voice here, Ben, are we? We’re doing change.”

Mark: It’s cultural change, right? Cultural change in an organization.

Ben: By the back door. Yeah, because I don’t set out to go, “Right, we’re into a cultural change program, here guys.” But it’s quite a subtle way to change culture because what you’re doing is, by changing the language, you’re inherently changing the nature of the conversation the organization has. And that has an effect on the behavior. So to give you one specific example of how the language can change behavior: One of the principles that I talk about a lot, and that we use in British English quite a lot, is using passive verbs, passive sentences. So if I say to you “A letter will be sent in due course,” you’re probably left thinking “Yeah, that’s going to happen isn’t it?”

Mark: It’s just spontaneously going to be sent.

Ben: Yeah. Whereas, if I use an active sentence and say “I’ll write to,” you immediately have a greater sense of energy, the sense that I am going to do something for you, so it reinforces the relationship between the company, the person writing, and the customer. And the sentence is clearer as well. But what it does is it forces that person to then send the letter and that’s the really critical thing about it. You have to take some action and be held to that. So that’s how I can see language affecting the behavior and, therefore, the culture of an organization.

Mark: That’s wonderful, Ben. Four Steps to Tone Heaven. Ben, I really want to thank you for being on Confessions of a Marketer.

Ben: You’re quite welcome, Mark. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

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