Voice, Tone & Sounding Human

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For the past few years, many established brands have been eager to reshape the way they speak to their audiences. They finally figured out that their professional, elevated voice was actually condescending. They’ve decided they want to sound human and authentic. Simplification isn’t a bad word anymore. That’s great that these brands, now so concerned with being customer-centric, have embraced a voice that truly can engage its audience. Yet, big brands still lack consistency. And what’s worse is that the internal dialogue hasn’t changed. It’s still weighed down by jargon, corporate speak and acronyms.

I have been accustomed to and sometimes guilty of using those terms and phrases. However, I’m so aware of it now that I won’t allow myself to just accept it. If we want to be better communicators then we should all embrace these novel ideas on voice and tone.

I’ve shaped the voice and tone of several brands. This is what I learned while working in the technology/ software sector. I’ll preface this by stating the company did not have an identified brand or voice. What they did have was an absolute text book content for how not to write.

1. They gave their audience way too much credit. You cannot read or write content from the perspective of an SME (Subject Matter Expert). You are; your audience most likely is not. And you may have multiple segments of your audience with various knowledge levels. Start with the assumption that your audience knows nothing. Write and target for different areas of knowledge but do so in blogs, ebooks or white papers. These are areas where users can choose content. Dumbing it down isn’t dumb. It’s simplification. If you can’t describe something simply then you have bigger problems!

2. Jargon is a barrier to good communication unless it’s really how your audience speaks. Most industry jargon is how ideas or practices are described internally. They may mean nothing to your audience. So how will you know how your audience speaks? Do your research. Listen to them at events and conferences. This was huge for me. I also asked our sales team questions about what they heard during conversations. Read other industry publications, not necessarily from your competition, but content directed at the group you are targeting. Compile your results, and create a toolkit of words to use and not use. These words are of course useful for SEO and PPC as well.

3. Remember than tone can change. Although, voice is stable, tone can shift depending on channel. The least formal tone is typically used in social media. Yet there’s still distinction between Twitter and LinkedIn. With Twitter, more abbreviations and brevity are the norm; LinkedIn tends to be slightly more professional. The tone of a blog post is informal yet may be presenting data or big ideas. Blogs also often prompt the reader to comment, respond or take action. All these things impact tone. It’s important to flesh out your voice then make slight adjustments to master tone.

4. Be readable! Being interesting and relevant are part of this, but what I really mean here is look at your syntax. Are your sentences too long? Are there too many compound sentences? Are the sentences hard to read because of this? I’ve seen sentences with multiple clauses that run for days it seems. And maybe they have a lot of great points. But nobody’s going to read them. It’s too overwhelming. Mix up the sentence lengths, and aim for brevity.

5. Stop trying to impress everyone with your vocabulary! I love words. I’m a word nerd that as a child read the dictionary. My vocabulary is impressive. However, I know that for something to be clearly understood by the masses, it should be on a sixth grade reading level. For example, write use not utilize. It’s that simple.

6. Avoid passive voice if possible. Showing action helps keep a reader’s attention so the subject of the sentence should be acting out the verb. It’s not completely unavoidable. Just be aware!

Brands must change to continue to be relevant. Voice is a big part of that. Communication continues to change. Think about how texting has affected writing. I do text, but I rarely abbreviate. You may get a chapter from me. I made be old school. That’s fine with me. I think it’s important to temper cultural communication shifts with principles of good writing. And of course much of it goes back to audience and reflecting on how they speak.

My last thoughts on this subject are back on internal communication. Brands have worked so hard to create a human voice. But everybody’s still talking to each other like there was no evolution. Jargon and clichéd phrases still punctuate every meeting and email. There’s eye rolling (maybe that’s just me), but it seems harder to change how we speak to each other than how we speak externally. I think we all deserve to read and hear words that sound human.

What’s your take on voice, tone and jargon? I’d love to hear the words you hope to never hear or read again!

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