In both verbal and written communications, using the right words to convey your message is crucial. This is especially true in financial communications, when you might have limited space or time to communicate what can be quite a technical message. But language, both written and spoken, is about far more than the right words in the right order. The tone you use, I believe, is equally important. Get that wrong, and it’s like adding a full stop. in the middle of a sentence. It confuses your message and switches off your audience.
For example, using contractions in a formal document is widely discouraged. It just seems overly familiar. But using contractions in an educational guide for beginners, or a ‘blog’ style editorial piece makes much more sense – it helps the flow for the reader and feels more natural. I even encourage my clients to use contractions in marketing brochures as the text better replicates how they would speak to their audience if they were marketing a product to them face-to-face.
Given how important the tone of a communication is, it always amazes me how many firms don’t have ‘tone of voice’ guidelines. As a result, their communications are often quite garbled, moving between describing themselves in the 1st and 3rd person, and using a numerical digit here and spelling out a number there. Having clear guidelines to set your tone not only helps add some brand consistency to your communications, it also sets the standard for all your copywriters to stick to.
If you don’t have your own ‘tone of voice’ guidelines, here are seven useful steps to consider when creating some:
Step 1: Who’s talking?
Deciding whether you write communications in the 1st or 3rd person is a key element. Writing in the first person makes you seem more approachable, whereas the third person adds some distance and is far more formal. Whilst most firms agree to use either 1st or 3rd person across all communications, you might decide that for more ‘informal’ mediums of communication (e.g. email) you use the 1st person, but stick with the 3rd person in letters and official documents. That’s fine, as long as you stick to those rules consistently.
Step 2: To contract, or not to contract?
Contractions are simply shortened words used wherever it sounds normal to do so. For example, ‘We are’ becomes ‘We’re’ and ‘Cannot’ becomes ‘Can’t’. Yes, it is a much more informal way of communicating, but doesn’t it just feel more natural to contract words? And if it feels more natural, surely that makes your communication flow much better for your audience…?
Step 3: Get active
This is an important part of setting your tone that often gets overlooked. I always recommend my clients use an active, not a passive tense. This is more engaging to an audience and simply reads better in most instances. For example:
This passive sentence: ‘Our services are designed to help you…’
Can be improved instantly by making it active: ‘We provide services to help you…’
Equally, this passive sentence: ‘This document was created to summarise…’
Reads much better as an active sentence: ‘We’ve created this document to summarise…’
Step 4: Num6ers
It’s tricky to know exactly when to spell out a number or use a numerical digit, so I’ll just share the rules I generally use for my clients (unless they instruct otherwise!):
- Write numbers up to ten in words, and numbers higher than ten in numerical digits, except:
- If starting a sentence with a number, always write this in words
- Always use numerical digits in tables and graphs
It’s also wise to include something in your tone of voice document on the use of ‘%’ versus ‘percent’, ‘£’ versus ‘GBP’ and ‘£1 million’ versus ‘£1m’ or even ‘£1,000,000’. Personally, I’d go with the former rather than the latter for all three.
Step 5: Keep it simple
It’s not necessary to use formal language just because you’re some big shot corporation. Instead, why not stick to straightforward words that you’d use in everyday speech? Simple words don’t detract from your expertise or authority. They feel more natural and give the impression of a friendlier customer service. For example, many firms fall into the trap of using the sentence ‘Contact our sales department for more information’. Why not simply say ‘Interested to know more? Please call us to speak to one of our team’?
The below list shows some words that are commonly used that can be replaced with much simpler alternatives. Less is most definitely more in this situation.
- Don’t say ‘require’, say ‘need’
- Don’t say ‘furthermore’, say ‘also’ or ‘what’s more’
- Don’t say ‘annum’, say ‘year’
- Don’t say ‘upon’, say ‘on’…
Step 6: Putting your case forward
I, for one, get frustrated by documents that are littered with Random Capitalised Words. I feel an immediate need to search elsewhere in the document I’m reading for a definition, even though it’s not necessary in 99% of cases. I already know what those words mean! Perhaps use upper case initials sparingly in documents, only for brand names, company names, product names and any proper nouns. Otherwise it just kills the flow of a document.
Headers and titles are different, although more and more firms are using sentence case there too.
Step 7: Other things to keep consistent
This is a bit of a ‘catch-all section’, but important none-the-less. Your tone of voice document needs to set rules to follow when writing to ensure consistency, especially across:
- Telephone numbers (‘0207 xxx xxx’, ‘020 7xxx xxx’ or +’4420 7xxx xxx’?)
- Dates (‘2 October 2014’, ‘2 Oct 2014′ or ’02/10/2014’?)
- Times (‘18.00hrs’ or ‘6.00pm’?)
- Formatting of bullet points (introduced with a ‘:’? Never punctuated with a full stop? Sentence case?)
Putting your tone of voice document together can take a bit of time, but believe me, you’ll be grateful afterwards. Not only will it more than half any edits you need to make to copy when proofing to make it consistent, but it will make sure each document you produce is consistent with the one before and the one after.