Designing tone of voice

Organizational 'tone of voice' was one of the many points of discussion this week. Can you change organizational culture by changing the tone of voice? What is organizational tone of voice? Can you design it in/out? Is it an external brand thing or an internal communications thing – is it reflected in print and spoken word or both? Someone talked about his experience at Vodafone which a while ago had a campaign introducing its 'red, rock solid, and restless' tone of voice. Looking at their 2008 annual report on this I find that

'The Group further embedded the Vodafone brand essence, "Red, Rock Solid, Restless", which communicates a common way of behaving that is designed to enhance business performance and customer orientation. This has been reinforced at the local level through workshops that encourage teams to apply the Vodafone values to their specific work concentrating on improving the experience of their customers.' The qualities are explained:

  • Red: Being passionate and energetic
  • Rock Solid: Being reliable and following through on promises
  • Restless: Continually striving for improvement and challenging the status quo

This sounds great as a cultural banner to muster behind. But the danger in these efforts is employee skepticism or downright hostility as in;

  • Red = passionate (I really hate this job)
  • Rock solid = dependable (trust us to get things wrong, consistently)
  • Restless = always looking for new ways (out)

Robert Mills doesn't tackle internal skepticism but does offer a terrific overview of tone of voice particularly related to web design but with much that is applicable in other contexts. He says that:

'Tone of voice isn't what we say but how we say it. It's the language we use, the way we construct sentences, the sound of our words and the personality we communicate. It is to writing what logo, color and typeface are to branding.
When we speak to others in person, our non-verbal communication says more than the words themselves. Non-verbal communication consists of facial expressions, tone, cues, gestures and pitch. Online, we lose of all of these except tone. We can imbue our Web copy with a tone that is distinct, clear, consistent and relevant to the target audience. You can't create a strong and effective user experience without language. And tone of voice plays a big role in this'.

What follows in his article are many examples including – Starbucks, Innocent, Ben & Jerry's, Lovefilm – of tone of voice as they come across on the Web.

Many organizations have Tone of Voice style guides. The British Council's is interesting as it tells us what the tone is not, as well as what it is: 'Our tone is not arrogant or patronising. It is not dull, smug, overly official, dry, over-familiar, glib, loud, cheeky or disrespectful'. But 'The British Council's tone is confident. We are world leaders at what we do. We are professional, but we are also friendly, lively, upbeat, warm, approachable and enthusiastic.' They also firmly say that 'Whenever we are communicating on behalf of the British Council it should be in the British Council's tone of voice. This is not an option. It is mandatory.' (These last two sentences caused me to jolt a bit).

Much of the organizational 'tone of voice' information is about getting it right i.e. reflecting the personality of your organization in text and visuals related to internal and external branding and communications. Although Robert Mills (above) mentions it, in fact, there's not so much easily accessible information from the marketing/branding angle on the actual tone of voice used in the organization as people talk with each other, make decisions, negotiate, influence, express their position in the hierarchy and so on.

But this is taken up in other disciplines. The Center for Non-Verbal Studies, for example, describes tone of voice in terms of pitch, rhythm, loudness, and then discusses how use of tone expresses feelings and emotions as in sarcastic, submissive, superior, angry, sad, happy and so on .

In these various aspects of tone of voice I'm wondering how easy it is to develop people's day to day thinking about it so where brand guides exist for written tone of voice the intent is taken into day to day vocal tone. For example, going back to the British Council's tone of voice statements one of them is: 'We are 'inspiring' : We believe our knowledge is most valuable when it is shared. We are positive, enthusiastic and always encouraging.'

So how does that translate into the day to day operation of the business? Are there formal and informal systems/processes for sharing knowledge? Are people positive in their tone – what happens if their tone expresses negativity, or impatience, or frustration. Do people have to be enthusiastic all the time – what if they are apathetic or passive or just normally trucking along? Is 'always encouraging' realistic? What happens if someone is underperforming and is in the firing line?

Getting the tone of 'say' aligned with expression of 'do' is a hard task. I don't know what the British Council does to develop the alignment – maybe someone out there can let me know – but in organizations I've worked with it seems to be a missing element. It's tied up with organizational values – respect, teamwork, transparency, etc but I haven't seen much in the way of 'this is how we speak with each other and this is the tone of voice we use.'

As I said at the start, I'm wondering whether once the brand 'tone of voice' has been identified whether helping staff think about the actual tone of voice linked to this that they use with each other could support the business direction of an organization. Could, for example, an organization that valued grades/hierarchy where people fell into submissive and superior voice tones become an organization more inclined to value performance and outcomes if a common tone of respect and 'I'm equal to you' prevailed?

Can you design in actual tone of voice alongside brand tone of voice? What do you think? Let me know.