Most service-based businesses aren’t offering a service that’s unique. A branding photographer is going to take photos of you. A social media marketer is going to market your business through social media. A financial advisor is going to coach clients on how to get the most out of their money.
But what can make each service-based business feel like a completely different (and hopefully, better) choice for their clients is how they talk to clients. The vibe they give off. The word choices they use. The energy they’re bringing to the table.
In other words, the brand’s tone of voice.
For service-based businesses—especially smaller or one-person businesses—having a tone of voice that creates the right impression is vital. Because your clients aren’t just buying a product off a shelf. They’re working with a person (or a team of people). And often, what captures or turns off a client is whether or not they like you.
It’s like being at a party. Likely, no one you meet is going to have something to say that you’ve never heard before. However, you’ll find that you “just click” with some…and forget the names of the others. It’s not what they said. It’s how they presented themselves and related to you.
So, how do you define a tone of voice for your business that 1) feels like you and 2) will also connect with the types of clients you want to attract?
By asking yourself lots and lots of questions.
[Sidebar: There’s a common perception that the “first thing that comes to mind” answers we give are the truest. However, I completely disagree. I find that our first answers give an incomplete picture of the truth. They’re full of assumptions. So, I like to allow clients time to really think through an answer, even if that means rambling through a two-minute response. Keep that in mind as you’re reading the suggestions in this article.]
Here’s how you can find the most genuine tone of voice for your brand.
Start with thought-through responses to the following questions
How much you is in your business?
Some service-based businesses hinge on the services of one person—you. Others are larger or have a team of people behind it.
You need to consider whether you want your business to have a tone of voice that matches your own voice or whether you want it to feel like a bigger company and therefore have a differentiated voice. (The answer depends on what your clients value—personal experience or the credibility of a large company.)
What are you like with clients?
Consider how your professional manner is with your clients. Are you all business? Do you act like a friend? Do you try to get them excited? Do you try to soothe them?
How do you want clients to feel throughout the service?
Do you want clients to feel empowered? Relieved? Relaxed? Do you want them to be realizing new things about themselves? Should they be feeling ecstatic? Cared about? More confident?
How do you want readers to feel after they read through your website?
Before your clients hire you, what impression do you want them to get as they read through your website? How do you hope they’ll be feeling?
How expensive is your service?
Can most people afford you? Or are your clients very wealthy?
This question matters because people who are paying a premium for your service expect a certain level of professionalism that some tones of voice can undermine.
Why should someone be friends with you?
Imagine you’re trying to convince someone to be your friend. How would you advocate for yourself? Why should they want a friend like you?
Consider your visual branding
It’s often pretty hard to put into words how we want to “sound.” However, most people have an easier time explaining why they’re drawn to certain colors or design styles, which can give you insight into how you should sound.
So, if you’ve got a website or logo that you love (and if not, just think of someone else’s that you love), write down why you feel connected to it. Here are some questions to get you started:
Why do you gravitate toward those colors?
Why did you want your website to have a minimalist/graphic/colorful/classic design?
Did you splurge for custom web design and visual branding? If so, why was it important to you that your stuff be custom? If not, what was the main “job” your website needed to do?
How do you feel when you look at your visual branding/website?
Look at your best clients
Likely, the clients you’ve had the best relationships with are the ones who really valued your style of communicating. So, examine who they are to extract information about the optimal tone of voice for your business. Here’s how:
Read through all your testimonials. Are there 1-3 things that multiple clients have mentioned they loved about working with you?
For example, many of my clients have mentioned how many highly targeted questions I ask them and how much it makes them think about their business in different ways. This points to my best clients valuing a really deep, personalized process—so the tone of voice I use should be intimate and earnest (rather than, for instance, bubbly and bold).
Why did you “click” with them? What about these clients made you feel confident that you were the right fit?
Your best clients are a mirror into what you value (and what you value should come across in your tone of voice). Were your best clients really passionate? Were they high-powered careerists? Did they laugh at your dorky jokes?
How do your best clients speak?
Everyone speaks differently but look for even small commonalities.
For example, do your best clients usually speak carefully and deliberately or do they think aloud? Do they use industry jargon like a pro? Or do they tend to say jargon-y words with a bit of awkwardness? Are they exuberant about their business or do they believe in presenting a reserved, professional front in their business?
How your best clients speak gives you a hint at how you should speak so that you resonate with more clients like them.
Compare other companies
One of the back doors to determining how we want to sound is to point to how we don’t want to sound. So, thumb through as many competitor websites as you can think of and make a note of any sites that you felt a twinge of dislike or alienation about.
For each one of the websites you don’t want to sound like, think of at least one precise reason why. For example: “They used a lot of swear words in their copy and it made me flinch because I find that unprofessional.”
You can also leverage what other companies are doing to help you find out what you do like. Think of at least one company (doesn’t have to be a direct competitor but it can be) that you felt connected to because of their branding. Then brainstorm why you resonated with their language.
Finally, choose 3-4 words that convey your tone of voice
Now that you’ve done all the thinking, it’s time to make a decision. You can start by writing down a long list of words that each capture some aspect of your answers to the questions in this article. And then start whittling down…
…until you arrive at a neat little list of words that describe your brand’s tone of voice. You can use this list to refer to every time you’re writing a blog post, social media post, client email, etc. (Or you can pass the list off to a writer you outsource to.)
Here are the tone of voice words for my business:
Tone of voice mistakes to avoid
The point of defining your tone of voice is to help your branding be strong and consistent. Common mistakes can have your tone of voice still feeling vague, watered down, or incongruous with the rest of your branding:
Choosing tone of voice words that are redundant
Double-check the definitions and synonyms for the words you end up with. It’s possible that you’ve chosen words that are pretty similar in meaning.
For example, “inspirational” and “empowering” are slightly different but they’re too close to both be useful. Choose the one that most fits your brand.
Choosing tone of voice words that are buzzwords
The problem with buzzwords is that they quickly become distorted, meaningless, or disingenuous because of how often they’re used. Which makes them pointless as definers of your tone of voice.
The biggest example I see of a buzzword-as-tone-of-voice is “authentic.” If you find yourself with a buzzword on your tone of voice list, replace it with a less often used synonym. For example, authentic could become “truthful” or “honest.”
Choosing tone of voice words that are contradictory
Make sure that your tone of voice words don’t contradict each other. For example, if you have both “light-hearted” and “scholarly” on your list you have a problem.
Choosing tone of voice words that aren’t unique to your business
Words like “professional” and “knowledgeable” won’t really help you define a tone of voice that makes you stand out. That’s because it’s a given that any business should be professional and knowledgeable.
Go beyond a simple list of words
Creating a list of 3-4 tone of voice words is the basic version of defining your brand’s tone of voice. It’s a good start and can help you feel more confident when it comes to what your brand stands for (and what makes it stand out!).
But there’s a lot more than goes into tone of voice. The strongest brands have tone of voice brand guidelines that tackle things like…
- Who their brand is as a person
- The why behind the tone of voice
- Specific phrases or words to avoid
- Specific branded phrases to use
- The subtle differences in tone of voice depending on the medium (like LinkedIn vs. Instagram)
- Stylistic choices (like formatting and grammar)
- Exceptions to tone of voice
- And more
Creating full tone of voice brand guidelines is time-consuming but immensely valuable for streamlining new pieces of content + forming an air-tight brand.