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The last piece when creating a compelling Point of View is your tone of voice - how you communicate to the world.
People take tone for granted. But it’s one of the most important pieces of the Point of View puzzle.
Remember that a brand is the sum of impressions and emotions people feel when interacting with you. If prospective clients are engaging with your firm prior to working with you, it’s likely going to be through your website, social media, email, or other Authority Marketing initiatives.
That material will primarily be words. So your words play a disproportionate role in how you communicate and the perceptions you create in the process.
As we talked about in our article on becoming a Trusted Advisor, one of the 3 essential elements is to build relationships. The most personality your tone has, the more likely your customer will be to feel like they know you, like you, trust you.
Minimum Viable Personality
Tech Startups have known this for a long time. Early stage startups are resource constrained. They can’t invest in brand like larger businesses can.
They’ve realized the words they use on their website and in their apps can create a “personality” for the product. Two products that do the exact same thing can “feel” much different based on the words they use.
Compare Microsoft Teams to Slack. Both are collaboration software. But while Teams has a sterile, professional personality, Slack feels friendly and borderline fun.
Neither are wrong. But both were (likely) conscious choices. We want to approach how we communicate with the same level of intention.
So how do we do that?
The 3 Elements of Voice
There are three essential components to voice.
Vocabulary is the words you use. Depending on who you seek to serve and what your services are, the words matter.
Typical copywriting advice says to keep your writing at a 3rd or 5th grade reading level. While we do believe this useful as a rule of thumb, there is nuance. It depends on your audience. In certain highly technical fields, using overly simplistic language erodes trust rather than fostering it.
Similarly, in the right context the use of jargon or acronyms can actually improve your writing. In the context of professional services it often indicates that you understand the industry or companies you seek to serve, subconsciously creating trust.
Tone is the emotions and personality you express in your writing. Some writing is serious, sometimes it’s friendly, sometimes it’s funny (hard to pull off).
If you’re like most of our clients, you probably don’t want to be silly in your writing. But you probably have more leeway than you think to inject some personality into the equation.
Sometimes your personality comes through by the breaking of rules. Author Neil Gaiman says, “Style is the stuff you get wrong.”
Cadence is the rhythm of your writing. It’s how your sentences and paragraphs flow.
This is probably the area consultants struggle with the most. Most of our writing these days is online, and online writing lends itself to shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, scanning. It might make your English professor rage with fury, but it’s generally more effective.
You have some wiggle room here, but in general you want to err on the side of making it easy to scan. But you also want to keep the cadence varied - if every sentence is short the writing can start to sound monotonous. You want to have your writing flow, almost like music.
Keep in mind that you can still communicate complex ideas while using a shorter cadence. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
Some Common Voice Archetypes
While everyone’s voice is unique, there are some common patterns that can be helpful when trying to hone in on your own voice. Our favorite lens on this comes from copywriter Justin Blackman, who identified 9 archetypes. The ones we’ve seen being most relevant in the world of professional services include:
- The Translator: their expertise is in making complex ideas simpler. They use analogies often to make ideas easier to understand. Often useful in accounting or financial services.
- The Parent: I’ve been where you are and I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. They lean primarily on past experiences to build trust. Often useful in law.
- The Voice of God: their more serious, and will try to remain complex on purpose. Can be very effective if your audience is more sophisticated and you have the credentials to back it up. Often useful in strategy consulting.
- The Friend at the Bar: They can still be smart, but they are also friendly and hip. They’ll often use slang, aren’t afraid of emojis, are generally optimistic, like showing you the cool thing they found. They’re more sharing vs. preaching. Often useful in marketing and innovation.
- Learning as We Go: They are on a journey and bringing you along for the ride. Similar to “building in public” they take you behind the curtain of the thing they are building. It’s not uncommon to end up subconsciously rooting for their success. Often useful if you’re younger and lack some of the more traditional credentials.
- Anti-establishment. Irreverent and often snarky. Will take the contrarian position as a rule. Can world well, but is risky in that it can turn some people off. Most often found in technical consulting or innovation work.
Firm Voice vs. Advisor Voice
Another nuance here - your firm likely has a distinct voice from the advisors that work inside the firm. Both matter - as we’ve talked about elsewhere, people buy from people not firms.
In general, you as an advisor can be more candid and casual in how you communicate. While firms have case studies, you have lessons and experiences.
Individuals can also talk about more than just work. By allocating a small percentage of your content to who you are as a person, your audience feels like they get to know you better, building empathy and trust. So if you serve on a board or do nonprofit work, feel free to talk about it. If you have a hobby, share some of your experiences with it.
Even quirks can work. Gary Vaynerchuk wants to buy the Jets someday and goes to garage sales on the weekends. Seth Godin hates cilantro.
How to Discover Your Voice
Nielsen Norman Group uses four sets of question pairs to hone in on tone of voice. Those are:
- Formal vs. Casual
- Serious vs. Funny
- Respectful vs. Irreverent
- Matter-of-fact vs. Enthusiastic
Once you’ve plotted yourself on the dimensions for each of those, you can get more granular with more nuanced words to describe each:
Refer back to your values.
The values you chose as a firm sometimes have implications on the tone you communicate with. People (and firms) who have certain values likely tend to communicate in similar ways. For example:
- If one of your values is “hugging your customers”, you might be more inclined to communicate like The Parent archetype.
- If you value “moving fast and breaking things”, you might communicate more like the Learning as we Go archetype.
- If you value humility, you probably won’t communicate using the anti-establishment archetype.
How do your clients talk?
If you’re stuck, you can start by looking at the words your clients use. Are they more sophisticated or less so? What kind of words or jargon do they use?
This is a technique known as mirroring. We are constantly making assumptions and judgments about other people, often subconsciously. By using a similar speaking style to how your clients communicate, you trigger the mechanism that creates feelings of familiarity.
You can start by simply paying attention to your existing customers and how they communicate in meetings and in writing. You can supplement this by looking at how they communicate on LinkedIn or online. Pay attention to things like:
- Do they speak in full sentences or more casually?
- Do they incorporate emojis?
- What kind of slang do they use?
- What generation are they from?
(Aside: a helpful long-term tool for your firm can be a glossary. As you embed yourself more in the worlds of your Ideal Client Profile, you discover they have their own jargon and terms. Glossaries can be useful for ensuring your team uses the words they use.)
Document your voice through examples.
Once you’ve honed in on your voice, take a stab at examples. Show your team how you do want to communicate and how you don’t. Provide a list of specific, concrete suggestions for things like slang, acronyms, jargon, punctuation, use of emojis, use of bullets, etc.
Clarify your voice
Getting clarity and alignment on your tone of voice will make every piece of communication you create with prospective and current clients more effective. It will reinforce your brand and help you achieve Trusted Advisor status. And it will make your Authority Marketing efforts more compelling and persuasive.