Content

The Difference Between
Voice & Tone

by on 18th May 2016

You’d be hard pressed to find a marketer who won’t nod emphatically when you say, “You need to establish your voice.” But I’d wager that you’d be equally stymied if you tried to find someone who can tell you exactly what they mean when they talk about voice—or how voice differs from tone.

And yes, they’re different.

Every marketer using these terms synonymously is wrong.

Your confusion ends here.

Voice

Voice is the element that remains consistent across all the content you create. It allows readers to immediately identify content as your own, no matter when they see it or what platform they see it on.

Not only that, but voice also expresses the unique values and personality of your company. It’s how you make a piece of content immediately recognizable as your own. Voice is the reason we often recognize a new Coca-Cola commercial or John Lewis’ Christmas ad even before we see the logo.

“Personally, I can read about almost any subject if I feel a basic trust in, and respect for, the writer. The voice must have authority.”

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

A brand’s voice is characterized both by what it is AND what it is not. For example:

  • Funny, but not irreverent.
  • Pointed, but not abrasive.
  • Refined, but not stuck up.
  • Friendly, but not sappy.
  • Playful, but not silly.

It’s important to pin down your brand’s voice before you begin content marketing. Once you know your voice, you need to make sure that all of your content creators are on the same page. Companies that lack a voice of their own inevitably come up with dull content.

Tone

Unlike voice, which should remain consistent, tone is changeable. You adopt different tones to convey different attitudes—so you’re excited as you announce new developments in your industry (or, y’know, when you geek out over VR tech), but more subdued if you’re delivering serious news.

“Whether or not you employ humor in dealing with difficult subjects, the tone of the writing is of the utmost importance. … The tone of such pieces may be serious, ironic, angry, sad, or almost anything except whiny.”

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

Tone adds flavour to your voice and keeps your content fresh. For example, maybe your business is known for its sense of humour, but that humour manifests at different times as good-natured, goofy, cheeky, witty, wry, or sarcastic.

Shaking Up Your Style

One additional note: your brand’s voice is deeply tied to your particular style, but style can (and occasionally should) be changed. Style is rooted in your tone and diction (i.e. the words you use to describe your brand, be it formal, informal, slang, etc.).

If voice is the personality behind your content, then style is the way that personality is conveyed to your audience. Style is not easy to change, but some companies flounder before they find a style that properly communicates their voice.

One example that springs to mind is the MCU cinematic universe. The voice underlying Marvel’s superhero films hasn’t changed drastically since Kevin Feige became president (if anything, they’ve become more consistent), but the style took a dramatic shift. Each superhero film they produce is now stylistically recognizable as part of a greater whole.

Examples of Tone and Voice

MailChimp

Mailchimp
MailChimp has a publically available Content Style Guide, so no surprise here. Their tone ranges from informative to entertaining, and they’ve nailed their voice as informal (but not sloppy), expert (but not bossy), and weird (but not inappropriate)—among other descriptors. Their voice comes through loud and clear, even on their 404 page.

Monet’s Water Lilies

Monet's Water Lilies
Despite the fact that he developed cataracts and his artistic style changed drastically between 1903 and 1925, we can tell that these paintings was created by Monet. They all share recognizable traits and embody Monet’s “voice.”

Tom Horton’s

Tim Horton's
Is my Canadian showing? Tim Horton’s is Canada’s most iconic brand. Their voice is consistently friendly, happy to help, and casual, but their tone ranges from wholesome to gently self-mocking (as seen in the ad above).

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