A brand's tone of voice is a powerful ‘nudge’.

October 12th, 2018

Note: I wrote this for Brand Quarterly a while back. Reposting here for y’all.

Recently, the UK government’s Behavioural Insights team (nicknamed the ‘nudge unit’ when they were formed back in 2010 – though don’t call them that, apparently they don’t like it) published their latest update, sharing stories of the work they’ve been doing over the last two years.

They say they ‘use insights from behavioural science to encourage people to make better choices for themselves and society’. Their successes are varied – from a £30 million increase in tax paid each year by tweaking the reminder letter so it pointed out that ‘most of your neighbours have already paid’, to cutting the high drop-out rate of adult literacy classes in Manchester just by sending the participants a text on Sunday nights, saying ‘I hope you had a good break, we look forward to seeing you next week.’

For anyone who works in brand and marketing, your initial reaction might well be ‘So what? They’re just doing what marketing has always done: sussing out the psychological triggers that change people’s behaviour, and using them.’

Their focus, though, is looking for the small and seemingly insignificant tweaks (‘nudges’) that can make an unexpectedly big difference. And what many people are finding significant, is that so many of the successful ‘nudges’ have been to do with making small changes in wording.

Your Brand’s Tone Of Voice Is A Powerful Nudge

As well as playing its part in making a brand more consistent and distinctive, when a brand applies their tone of voice right across the board, they often get the results that are remarkably similar to the Behavioural Insights team. Here’s just a few recent examples I’ve seen first-hand:

It seems pretty clear: a writer using a well-crafted tone of voice is essentially a one-person ‘nudge unit’. What’s also clear to me is that businesses consistently and massively under-estimate the power they have in their hands with their tone of voice. In that last example, of the customer response leaping from 3% to 46%, the company was initially hoping for a 5% increase the response rate! We so often believe that big or complex problems need big and expensive solutions. The idea that tweaking a sentence or two here and there can make such a dramatic difference hardly ever occurs to people.

So, how can brands make sure they’re making the most of their tone of voice in this way? In my experience there are three key factors:

  1. Your Tone Of Voice Must Be Practical To Use

Lots of brands will tell you they ‘have a tone of voice’. What they really have is a couple of cursory pages in their enormous visual guidelines book, with a few adjectives scattered on it, saying things like ‘sound human and honest’, and ‘be inspiring and uplifting’, without saying how you might do those things, or what it might actually look like in practice.

To be really effective, a well-defined tone of voice needs to be a ‘thinking tool’ that helps you focus on the content, structure and tone of what you’re writing. It should also be simple enough that you can remember it easily every time you sit down to write (or sign off) a bit of writing, yet is comprehensive enough to be useful in a wide variety of situations.

  1. You Need To Take It Seriously

Once you’ve defined your tone of voice, don’t just file it away with all those other strategy, architecture and mission/vision/values documents. Get people fired up about using it, and make it part of how you live and breathe your brand.

I find that a tone of voice only sticks once (a) people start to hear a few of success stories of unexpectedly powerful ‘nudges’, (b) people have had some quality hands-on training in using it, and (c) have been supported as they start flexing their writing muscles and tried things out.

  1. Get Everyone Involved

And if you want tone of voice to have the biggest effect on your brand, it’s essential to involve the whole company.  Not just brand, marketing and comms, but everyone from finance to legal to compliance to HR. Because these days, everybody is a writer. And the small print that’s drafted one day in a legal department can become – through the evils of copy and paste – something that’s read out on the phone to your customers, or pops up in a text message to them – thousands of times a day. And most of the bits of writing that have the biggest potential to ‘nudge’ our customers – the call centre scripts, the text messages, the small print, the customer letters – are often owned by a mix of different departments.

When you do all three of these things together, you’re well on your way to embedding your tone of voice right across your organisation – and giving your brand the unexpected power of a thousand daily ‘nudges’.