Why Tone of Voice Docs Matter (And How to Start)

Great brands manage to give off cohesive and memorable brand identity and connect to each customer as if they’re talking to them one on one.

Maintaining this consistent communication is hard, even for individuals – let alone for a 500-strong company.

So, how do they do it? Great tone of voice documentation (a.k.a. TOV).

Why tone of voice matters

Consistency in a brand or company is more than just its visual look – it’s also about how we talk to our users and potential users.

Tone of voice is an important but often overlooked part of this. A dubious email reply to a customer, an out-of-place section on the website, a weirdly-worded social media post… Small things like these can wear away trust in your brand.

In plain English, if leads are weirded out, they’ll turn elsewhere.

Yes, you might be able to resolve this by having discussions on the topic internally, but they don’t always work.

The importance of documentation

Not having documentation means having to constantly reinvent the wheel.

New campaign? “Let’s have a separate tone-of-voice brainstorming session!” 

Updated product? “Our priority is refreshing content, so there’s no time to think about tone!” 

PR crisis? “Mary from Social quit, and now we don’t know how to answer!”

It’s inefficient, wasteful, and unscalable.

Teams should be able to spend their energy on creating exciting features and fresh content. If there’s no TOV process in place, they’ll be burdened with trying to figure it out every time the need arises (and it will).

And if you’re thinking about how revamping old copy can be useful – by doing your due diligence once with TOV documentation, it can be really successful.

Where the tone of voice documentation shines

Serves as a guide for your customer-facing team

Whether it’s used for onboarding, training, or daily checks, the documentation becomes a single source of truth. It’ll consolidate intelligence that is likely scattered across personal and group knowledge bases.

Ensure customers and leads receive consistent messaging

Once the assigned staff is trained, all communications will then have the same thought process behind them, and the customers will definitely notice.

Preserve institutional knowledge

If only one person is responsible for thinking about the TOV and they leave the company, most of this knowledge will be lost.

Work on branding material if you make it available to the public

Companies like Starbucks and Greenpeace share their style guides online, not only with collaborators who’ll apply them. It’s a way for them to showcase how much they care about good communication.

Saves time in the long run

Having proper TOV documentation will save you time in the long run because there’ll be less back-and-forth required.

When is too soon?

You might think: “But I never created procedures, and so far, ad hoc discussions mostly work for me. Isn’t creating documentation an overkill?”

Probably not. Working on this knowledge base is actually a great way to kickstart your tone of voice journey.

To make things more concrete, you’ll end up assessing how you currently reach out to customers and identify who inside the company should own the process. And both are great steps toward consistency.

What TOV documentation should include

There’s no minimum length or size, as it really depends on your needs. The most important thing here is that it reaches those who’ll apply it.

That being said, there are a few common elements that make a good TOV documentation resource:

Your brand and buyer personas – These will inform all your content by identifying who’ll be on the “other side” of the communication loop

Your brand archetype – Is your brand helpful and eager? Or aggressive and bold? The archetype serves as a general north star to all interactions

Sliding scales – Visually represent where you are in terms of personality (e.g. serious/funny, professional/relaxed, respectful vs irreverent, enthusiastic vs matter-of-fact)

Examples – Preferably both good and bad examples to showcase what to do and what not to do in common situations

Words we like/dislike – Either in a pure list form or in a more organised brand dictionary

Relevant tone – Ideally, it should lead by example and adopt the tone of voice it defends. This not only brings consistency to a full circle but also makes it easier for readers to understand the message

Who should create the TOV documentation?

It might seem logical that the people who face customers all day long should be the ones to prepare the documentation. Well, that’s not always the case.

This is because teams immersed in communication are usually so focused on their process that they likely don’t see an issue with it.

That doesn’t mean alienating those who shape TOV daily, though. They should be the primary point of contact to understand which challenges the documentation should address. Any resource should be a tool for them and be supported by them.

For those reasons, working with experienced tech copywriters to develop your TOV documentation is more than beneficial to your business.

This is because they

  1. Know what works and what doesn’t – It’s possible they have already created similar resources in the past, so they have experience on the matter
  2. Know the industry and/or niche – They might know about the quirks surrounding specific industries and how to address them
  3. Aren’t biased – They have a neutral, no-nonsense point of view and can more easily point out issues in the current TOV delivery
  4. Aren’t reactive – Since they’re not dealing hands-on with communication challenges, they have an easier time thinking outside the box

How to get started with tone of voice documentation?

Regardless of whether you’re preparing the knowledge base internally or outsourcing it, you should prepare a plan detailing your needs and expectations. Make it obvious as to who should be its users and the expected outcome.

It’s similar to what happens with a good copywriting brief. The clearer it is, the better the end result will be.

Finally, don’t strive for perfection the first time around. Documentations like these are what we call “living documents” and will be refined as the brand grows.

As your buyer personas and business evolve, the documentation should be updated. Even if your team already has an ideal version on hand, achieving that coveted consistency is a journey. Though it’s one that your company and your customers will for sure appreciate.

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