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Have you noticed how people often talk differently when they are assuming a specific role?

If you ever watch Police Interceptors (and I do – my eldest son is obsessed with it), you’ll know what I mean.

Imagine the scene. Police in a squad car spot a Ford Escort weaving across the road. They flash their blue lights and the car doesn’t stop. Instead the driver hits the throttle and gets chased for a couple of miles before hitting a roundabout. The driver legs it and, after a short chase, is rugby tackled to the floor and cuffed, before being cautioned and being bundled into the back of the cop car.

A policeman, speaking in that very police-style way, might say:

“We observed a car being driven erratically and indicated for it to pull over. The driver failed to stop so we made the decision to pursue it at a safe distance. Upon hitting a kerb, the suspect decamped and tried to evade arrest. After pursuing the victim we were able to immobilise him and take him into custody.”

Okay, it’s not perfect, but if you read that paragraph without any context, you’d know straight away that it’s a policeman talking.

In the marketing business, the way a business uses language is called ‘tone of voice’. Used intelligently it can make you stand out from your competitors. Used indifferently it makes you blur into the crowd.

Big businesses know this and spend huge sums creating a unique tone of voice and making sure it is used consistently, both online and off. Whenever I’ve written for large corporations, I’ve almost always been given a set of guidelines that tell me what kind of voice to use. These companies realise that great design and branding build their brands – and that words do too.

It works. You can identify brands that have nailed tone of voice simply by reading a few sentences. Try this.

You should probably try opening this carton at the other end. Not that we’re telling you how to run your life or anything, but it seems work much easier when the drink comes out of the spout on the top.

You’ve probably guessed that comes from the bottom of an Innocent smoothie carton. Their brand is instantly recognisable by their tone, which is friendly, informal, cheeky and funny in equal measure.

And the clever thing is that, if a competitor tried to copy this tone of voice they’d essentially be giving Innocent free advertising. It’s so closely tied up with that one brand.

It’s the opposite situation to the imaginary policeman I ‘quoted’ earlier. Those words sounded like any policeman might sound. Innocent’s words sound like Innocent, and no other smoothie company.

This is something that many smaller businesses need to grasp. My heart sinks when a business briefs me by saying ‘we want to sound like our competitors’. It sinks still further when they say, ‘Well, we don’t like jargon, but everyone in our sector uses it so we’d like you to use it too.’

I mean, how can you make your voice heard above your competitors if you sound exactly the same?

Take this as an example. I once did some research into how solicitors’ firms talked about themselves. I found that so many talked about themselves and their history and achievements, rather than focusing properly on why new clients could choose them.

I waded through acres of stuff that read like this:

Founded in 1726, the firm of Ebenezer and Smiles has provided legal services to the people of Sometown for generations. Based in an imposing Georgian building adjacent to the town square, our reputation has been built on….

At which point, the reader will be thinking, “But how can they help me with my conveyancing / divorce / employment contract / desire not to go to prison?”

I’m not for a moment suggesting that a solicitors’ firm should use the so-called ‘wackywriting’ tone of voice used by Innocent. But they should think about the persona they want to convey: if they want to appear trusted, competent, efficient, reliable, successful and caring (for example), how can they use words to convey those values?

And there, I think, is the rub. The first step to creating a tone of voice for your business is to think about both the values you want to promote and how to match them to the needs of your potential clients and customers.

I’ll write a future post showing you in more detail how you can do this. But for now, my two main pieces of advice are:

  • Avoid the temptation to sound just like everyone else in your sector. You will just blend into the crowd.
  • Speak directly and clearly to your audience. Just because your competitors use industry jargon, it doesn’t mean that your customer does – speak to them clearly in a way you know they’ll understand.


Simples, eh, Sergei?!

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About Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter who specialises in business-to-business marketing, writing about everything from software and accountancy to construction and power tools. He co-founded the Professional Copywriters’ Network, the UK’s association for commercial writers, and is named in Direct Marketing Association research as ‘one of the copywriters who copywriters rate’.

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