Nailing tone of voice in content marketing: Nick Parker interview

Good marketing should feel natural. Not like a telesales call you wish you hadn’t accepted.

Newsletters, blogs, case studies, white papers, social media posts. They can all become completely bland without one magic ingredient.

Tone of voice adds spice to marketing. The master of this art is a man called Nick Parker. He runs an agency called ‘That Explains Things’ and created a unique way for businesses to develop a distinctive, authentic tone of voice. What a dude.

*This is an approximation of our conversation, not an exact script.

How important is tone of voice in marketing?

Tone of voice is essential in marketing. If you want to cut through the ton of noise, a distinctive tone of voice really helps. Tone of voice sits in three big chunks.

  1. The stuff at the ‘top’ (your hero items – company name, service line names)
  2. Your signature phrases (the things you talk about over and over again- Ben and Jerrys sign emails ‘Peace, love and ice cream’)
  3. Your general tone of voice (appearing in emails, content and marketing)

Tone should be in congruence with your brand. If you say your brand is exciting, dynamic and energetic, then your tone needs to match it. Otherwise people notice that mis-match.

Tone should be consistent across all marketing and communications, too. It’s weird when a brand has good tone of voice in its day-to-day communications, but it’s branding and naming is off kilter.

Stephen Pinker once said, ‘All communication is the dance between clarity and surprise.’ If you’re not careful, you’ll focus entirely on clarity (what’s our message, what should we be saying) which is fine – but everyone focuses on that. Unless you have something genuinely unique or surprising to say, it’s how you say it that will make you stand out.

Being more of yourself, having more personality, taking more risks to be interesting with language; it all takes effort. People notice effort.

In a weeks time we might have forgotten this conversation, but you will remember what I sounded like. Did he seem friendly and helpful? Or cold and stand-offish? That’s what tone is doing: making you memorable.

What things do you see businesses usually stuff up, when it comes to tone?

ven if you already work in marketing it’s hard to know what the options of tone of voice are, which is why so many people just copy their competitors. For example, when Innocent Drinks created a fun, chatty tone of voice everyone seemed to copy them. For a long time anyone who wanted tone of voice work imitated Innocent. I wrote a piece about this on LinkedIn.

The second mistake is trying too hard to be distinctive. You might have a great tone, but nothing really to say. It feels like every leadership strategist or life hacker on Medium writes the same ‘5 top tips on productivity’ (you know the story about Steve Jobs wearing the same clothes every day). This is when marketing becomes really fluffy and irritating.

Through Voicebox I share 11 distinctive language styles with clients. This shows the range of options available and offers a full spectrum for businesses to fit into. A lot of clients find this really exciting. It enables you to position yourself carefully and avoid copying what everyone else is doing. In fact, you can download this for free on my website this week.

What advice would you give a small business owner or a marketing manager, if they were looking to improve their corporate tone of voice?

Tone of voice can seem like a dark art. Here’s what I’d advise you do to get started:

Steps

  1. Self diagnose
  2. Look outside your category
  3. Take more risks

Gather all the stuff that sounds like you at your best. Website pages. Proposals you’ve written. Blogs. Emails. Anything that says ‘That’s me.’ You won’t sound generic, you won’t sound bored. This is the first step to self-diagnosing your own tone of voice. When we’re at our best, what do we do? In my work I often help companies capture what the content writer or founder can already instinctively do.

Look outside your category. If you make gym bags, don’t look at other gym bags. Look at luxury goods or perfume. Steal from other places. Otherwise you’ll sound like everyone else.

Push it more than you think you ought to. Get out of your comfort zone. The rules of grammar we’re taught at school hang around for too long. So we can be overly conservative about writing. People often play it safer with language than visual design. This is the wrong approach. Be as experimental with your language as you would with anything else.

And if you’d really like to dig into the true tone of voice in your company, check out Nick’s website.

Nicks’ idea took the shape of Voicebox. A set of tone of voice tarot cards.

Find out more about him and his business here.