Why are tone of voice guidelines so woefully lacking?

If you look at a typical brand or organisation’s brand guidelines, you’re sure to see a few common tick boxes. Logo rules? Check. Gradients? Yep. Fonts? Absolutely. But tone of voice? More often than not it’s a page, maybe two – if it features at all – in a 40+ page PDF, comprising of a few floaty statements and top level tips. “Engaging”, “jargon-free”, “friendly”. It’s like asking for design that “looks good”.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with these tips and statements as such. Top level “vibes” are useful to get a sense of things as a copywriter. But they’re too vague. Guidelines are meant to be a rulebook. They need to be practical. And without practical application pointers alongside the bigger picture stuff, then how can writers be expected to create something worth reading?

In conversations around tone of voice, MailChimp rightly comes up often as a brand who have put time and attention into articulating its Content Style Guide. But there are plenty of other organisations you might not expect who are smashing it too, such as theĀ The University of Leeds or even The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA). What puts these three examples ahead of the pack in my opinion is that they’ve gone beyond the floaty statements and nailed down the mechanics of how you create the tone of voice. MailChimp goes into granular detail on writing for its different formats and platforms. Leeds University carefully couples every “what” with a “how”. ICSA plots out the road to good writing from A to B in clear and informative steps.

These three examples show that tone of voice can be well-articulated to great effect. It can be done. So why isn’t it being done more? Why are these examples so rare? Why are we still seeing these long, clunky guideline documents from brands big and small that don’t give tone of voice anywhere near enough time as design? Rob Mitchell, co-founder of We All Need Words, writes for Design Week that “the hard part of any tone of voice project is finding a lateral way to put all the brand stuff into words.” That it’s high time “visual identities budged up a bit to share some of that rebrand limelight with their wordy cousins.” And I couldn’t agree more. The attention that goes into the visual needs to go into the linguistic too.

If we don’t commonly see rules as important to copy, it’s surely at least part of the reason that there’s so much weak writing around. There’s golden work going out every day, but there’s also, as Velocity Partners’ Doug Kessler has eloquently established, a deluge of utter crap.

Would copywriting as an industry be better if we held it to account more? I sure as hell think so. And one place to start is by organisations taking the time to lay down some rules and articulate their voice and tone. It’s not an easy or thrillingly exciting task but the results could be epic.

I’m no rigid stickler for the rules. Rules should be played around with, toyed with, sometimes even broken. But I also think that the rules should be respected and at the very least known, even if they are then consciously ignored.

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