Picture this. You’ve just started your work week, when suddenly you get two Slack messages. The first one is from your boss:
“Send me a meeting invite. We need to talk.”
Meanwhile, the second one is from a different manager:
“What’s your schedule like today? I’d love to chat when you’re free!”
Both of these messages say more or less the same thing. So why is it that only the first one fills you with dread? The answer to that, of course, is tone.
What Is Tone in Writing?
In writing, tone is the implicit emotional message your piece sends to the reader. You can convey different tones in writing with your sentence structure, word choice, phrasing, imagery and more.
According to the Nielsen Norman Group, different types of tone can be evaluated in four dimensions: the level of formality, humor, enthusiasm, and respectfulness. But what does that mean in practice?
Let’s look at the above example more closely.
Aside from the obvious — the fact that it’s from your boss — the first message feels ominous because:
- There’s no sense of humor. Instead, it’s framed as a command, leaving you (the recipient) no option to decline.
- The phrase “we need to talk” feels quite serious and even negative, largely because it is frequently portrayed in pop culture as a prelude to a break-up.
- The sentences are terse, creating a more formal, matter-of-fact feeling.
- The word “need” implies that the topic will be quite serious.
By contrast, the second message has a more optimistic tone because:
- It opens with a question, implying that you’ll be able to reschedule or decline if necessary.
- Because you’re able to decline, the conversation feels less serious.
- It uses contractions and more casual phrasing, creating a sense of enthusiasm.
- By using phrases like “I’d love,” the message clearly sends friendliness and positivity.
In both cases, the message is the same: a higher-up would like to schedule a meeting with you to have a conversation. But the differences in phrasing and word choice make a dramatically different impression on the reader.
Why It Matters
Different types of tone in writing send different emotional messages to the reader. Using it effectively enables you to tell your brand’s story in an impactful way that resonates with your readers. This can have an enormous impact on the success of your messaging, helping the reader feel connected with your brand on a deeper level. It can even help to build trust with them.
One survey found that more than 65% of respondents felt an emotional connection with at least one brand or business. What’s more, over 90% of those connections were positive ones.
How to Choose a Tone for Your Brand
Even if you have many different writers creating content, your brand should ideally maintain a consistent overall tone. This should reflect not only your brand’s story and point of view, but also your relationship with your audience.
When working at the brand level, your objective is to establish high-level guidelines that define the ideal tone for your brand as a whole. In other words, it’s similar to establishing tone in an individual piece of content, just larger in scope.
Remember: some writers might occasionally need to modify that tone to better suit a certain topic, intended audience, publication, etc. Defining a brand tone doesn’t have to limit this. Instead, it lays a solid foundation for your writers to work from, empowering them to use and modify that tone thoughtfully and purposefully.
Here’s how it works:
1. Know Your Audience
When establishing a tone of voice for your brand, your audience is the cornerstone. After all, your products, services, and content are all created with their needs in mind.
At this point, it may be useful to create one or more customer or buyer personas, if you haven’t already. Personas are personified representations of your current or target customers. They are used to help teams better understand and empathize with their audience.
The best personas are backed by research. You can collect information through Google Analytics, social media analytics, and customer analysis research.
You might collect data such as:
- Demographic and/or professional info
- Problems they are trying to solve
- Their buying and decision-making behavior
- Communication channels and content types they prefer
And more! This list is not exhaustive. The point is to get to know your audience as people, with real needs and real passions. This way, you can communicate directly with them, on their terms.
2. Know Your Perspective
It’s not enough to know your audience. You also have to know yourself. Your brand has a unique perspective. Your content and your brand story should all reflect that perspective. It’s rooted in:
- What you stand for (your ideals, values and goals)
- What sets your brand, products and services apart
- What makes you valuable to your customers
So how do you define your perspective? This is pretty subjective, so there is unfortunately no singular, hard and fast process. Instead, it requires a lot of self reflection and brainstorming.
Many brands — like Zappos, for example — share their perspective by publishing their Core Values on their website. This can be a good way to help your audience understand you better, while also establishing a point of view for your writers to lean into.
3. Know Your Content
You might have ideas about the tone you want to establish. But what is your brand’s tone right now?
Whether you (or they) realize it or not, your audience probably already has an idea of what your brand’s tone is. This impression is created by the content you’ve already published, your advertising strategies, your previous storytelling, and other ways you’ve interacted with them in the past.
Luckily, just like your existing content tells a story to your audience, it can also tell that story back to you, through a content audit.
Auditing your existing content help you establish:
- What implicit messages you’re already sending
- What types of tone are the most impactful for your audience
- How closely your current library of content aligns with your ideal tone
Then, you can use this information to make the best and most impactful changes moving forward.
Start by identifying your most impactful pieces, based on whichever metrics are most important to you. Then, as you read them, ask yourself these questions:
- How are these pieces written? Are they very serious, enthusiastic, humorous, or irreverent? Are there consistent qualities across all of them?
- Do these pieces accurately reflect your unique perspective or core values?
- Do these pieces address the needs and interests you’ve identified for your audience?
- Which pieces of content seem to perform the best or worst?
- What do these pieces have in common? Tone? Length? Structure? Visual elements?
Use your findings to identify the tone that is most effective for you, and which best supports your goals. You can do this using the four dimensions of tone, covered in more detail below.
Maintaining a Relevant and Consistent Tone of Voice in Your Content
Identifying your ideal tone in writing is a crucial step. However, it’s also important to make sure each of your content pieces remains consistent. A tool like the SEO Writing Assistant can help you target the ideal tone of voice for each piece of content you create: it even identifies sentences where your tone is inconsistent and helps you rewrite them.
Now, let’s look at the most common types of tone in writing and explore some real-life examples.
Types & Examples of Tone in Writing (And Tips to Do It Yourself)
Ultimately, your ideal tone of voice will be determined not only by your brand identity, but also by the specific topic you’re writing about, and where you’re publishing it. For example, you’d probably write an Instagram post a lot differently from one for LinkedIn.
But executing tone-of-voice flawlessly is easier said than done. In fact, when we researched this using the SEO Writing Assistant, we found that 75% of all the pieces we analyzed used sentences that were too casual for the subject-matter. An additional 30% used sentences that were overly formal.
Formal vs. Informal Tone
Mentioned above, the Nielsen Norman Group established four primary dimensions that you can use to evaluate tone. The first of these is the level of formality. In other words, how formal or casual is your writing style?
Formal tone is usually marked by:
- Very proper grammar
- Longer sentences
- Complex phrasing and word choice
- Little to no contractions or slang
Scientific and technical writing is often extremely formal, using complex terminology and an impersonal approach to the subject matter.
However, formality doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Plenty of brands — especially luxury brands — lean into a formal tone in order to add a sense of sophistication to their marketing. Consider this example from Tiffany & Co.:
Here, Tiffany’s uses long sentences and complex phrasing and word choice to create a sense of gravitas. Take, for example, their choice to use a phrase like “the diamonds and colored stones he and his gemologists procured.” They could instead have chosen a simpler alternative like “the diamonds and colored stones they found.” Note how these choices foster an impression of expertise and importance for the brand.
If you want to write in a more formal tone, pay close attention to your grammar. Also consider using more complex phrases and sentences, and a more elevated word choice.
By contrast, here’s an example from the website of Philadelphia-based Steven Singer Jewelers:
Known for their irreverent “I Hate Steven Singer” ad campaign, Steven Singer’s marketing often targets men who might not ordinarily feel comfortable in an upscale jewelry store. This carries through to their History page. Here, they use casual words and phrases like “some guys were flipping burgers,” and “average guy.” This allows them to emphasize their relatability, even as they establish credibility.
To write in a more informal style, try to use simpler, more conversational sentences and phrases. Simpler, more everyday vocabulary, contractions, and even slang can also help.
Respectful vs. Irreverent Tone
The second dimension you can use to evaluate tone is the level of respectfulness.
A respectful tone is basically one that is not irreverent. It isn’t usually something that stands out, but instead, quietly informs the way you craft your content. You can emphasize respectfulness by demonstrating your regard for the reader or customer, or by emphasizing your core values.
Here’s an example from Harry’s Razors:
The language in this example might seem fairly neutral at first. The respectfulness in their tone is evident in the things they choose to emphasize in their copy. This includes a sense of equity (“every man deserves a quality shave at a fair price”), their guiding principles, and their reliance on customer feedback. Overall, in a relatively short character count, they make it clear that respect for their customers is a major priority.
By contrast, here’s how Dollar Shave Club describes themselves:
While Dollar Shave Club does emphasize customer feedback, quality, and service, their company description is much more irreverent than Harry’s. They swear, use casual but enthusiastic descriptors like “awesome,” and even mention their office dog. This creates an impression that they are fun, relatable, and “different” from other brands.
Humorous vs. Serious Tone
The third dimension of tone is humor. Is your preferred writing style more playful and funny? Or are you more grounded and serious?
Humor can draw people in. It shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously and helps your audience feel comfortable, connected, and positive about your brand. That’s what makes it such a powerful (and popular) advertising technique.
However, it’s also one of the most difficult things to write. After all, styles of humor can be wildly diverse. What has one audience crying tears of laughter might have another entirely stone faced. As such, if you decide to go for a humorous tone, make sure you have a thorough understanding of the audience you’re targeting.
Here’s how men’s grooming brand Old Spice uses humor in their marketing:
Old Spice is well known for their use of humor to highlight a sense of masculinity — they sell men’s grooming products, after all — without alienating potential customers or taking themselves too seriously. (Remember their iconic “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercials?)
Their style of humor is largely dependent on silly plays on words, as above, and on absurd overstatement. For example, here’s how they captioned the YouTube video for “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”:
By contrast, men’s natural skin care brand Oars + Alps takes a more serious tone:
While their style is still relatively casual, Oars + Alps stays serious in their copy, focusing primarily on their ingredient story, quality, values, and lifestyle. As a result, their copy feels almost aspirational, targeting the kind of person their audience wants to be — fit, active, and eco-conscious. This approach even carries through to their social media and user-created content:
Unlike Old Spice, their marketing implies that they do take themselves quite seriously. Moreover, that’s the point. Their copy tells you they take their products and ethical values seriously by putting them front and center. Doing this, they target an audience who wants to do the same.
Enthusiastic vs. Matter-of-Fact Tone
The fourth and final dimension of tone is the level of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means more than simply being excited. It means being effusive about your level of passion for the subject at hand, whether it’s positive or negative. That said, this is most often used in a positive sense, to generate excitement in the audience for the brand, product, service, or topic.
For example, here’s how apparel brand Life Is Good uses enthusiasm in their copy:
As a brand, Life is Good is relentlessly positive. So it follows that they use enthusiasm to show that positivity. They use tons of exclamation points, bold colors and fonts, and emotional language (see “everything you love” and “fall adventures” in the example above) to express their excitement. This is an inherently optimistic brand that wears their heart on their sleeve.
But enthusiasm isn’t right for every brand. At the other end of the spectrum, some prefer a more dry and matter-of-fact tone. Here’s an example from luxury menswear retailer Mr. Porter:
Mr. Porter’s website copy is much more sparse, and the design choices follow. The example above doesn’t just avoid exclamation points; it eschews punctuation altogether. And the copy itself is direct and straightforward. It avoids emotional phrases and provides only the facts: that there are 104 new styles for sale that day, many from designer Brunello Cuccinelli.
Their use of neutral colors and space, not only in their design but also in product photography, gives an impression of high-end minimalism. This design, together with their matter-of-fact tone, keeps only what’s important, instead letting their products speak for themselves.
It’s important to note here that a matter-of-fact tone doesn’t have to be minimalistic to be effective. The most important qualities of a matter-of-fact tone are a practical, straight-to-business approach and an avoidance of emotional language.
Hone Your Tone and Empower Your Writing
At the end of the day, if you’re creating content, that content is going to have a tone, even if you don’t use it intentionally. It’s an inescapable aspect of writing, even if it’s inconsistent or ineffective. By learning to harness it, you can empower your writing, connect with your audience, foster relationships, and build your brand.
The best way to hone your skills is to practice as much as possible. You can:
- Read your peers’ and competitors’ content
- Find writing that grabs you and analyze it
- Write tons of copy
- Always seek constructive feedback
And remember: no matter how much experience you have, writing with a consistent tone-of-voice can be difficult. It requires not only a solid understanding of what that tone is, but also a strict attention to detail as you revise.